As a result of Congressional Hearings wherein Congress found that churches, particularly those of minority religions and start-up churches, were disproportionately affected, and often were actively discriminated against, by local land use decisions. Furthermore, it was determined that zoning authorities were frequently placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations to exercise their faith in violation of the Constitution. This resulted in the passing of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to protect religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.

RLUIPA provides that “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation” that “totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction,” or “unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”

To accomplish this, RLUIPA bars zoning restrictions that impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise, unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” in imposing the restriction and the restriction is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest. It also requires that religious assemblies and institutions be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies and institutions in that it prohibits discrimination “against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”

Substantial Burden:
As so to avoid land use restrictions that impede the ability of a religious group, zoning may not impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” in imposing the restriction and that the restriction is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.

This burden must be substantial as opposed to a minor cost or inconvenience. In turn, the government must show not merely that it has a rational reason for imposing the restriction, but that the reason is compelling.

To determine whether or not a substantial burden exists, courts look at the degree to which a
land use restriction is likely to impair the ability to engage in the religious exercise in question. Whether a particular restriction or set of restrictions will be a substantial burden on a complainant’s religious exercise will vary based on the context. Courts have looked at factors such as the size and resources of the burdened party, the actual religious needs of the congregation, the level of current or imminent space constraints, whether alternative properties are reasonably available, the history of attempting to find a location within a community, the absence of good faith by the zoning authorities, and others.

Equal Terms:
RLUIPA provides that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.

Determining if a religious assembly is treated on “less than equal terms” than a secular assembly or institution requires a comparison of how the two types of entities are treated on the face of a zoning code or in its application. Courts have differed regarding how such a comparison is made, and thus the precise legal test for determining when this provision is violated will vary depending on the judicial circuit in which the case arises.

Land use restrictions may not discriminate “against any assembly or institution on the basis of
religion or religious denomination”

Courts have held that this bar applies to land use regulations that are discriminatory on their face, as well as land use regulations that are facially neutral but applied in a discriminatory manner based on religion or religious denomination. Thus, if a zoning permit is denied because municipal officials do not like members of a particular religious group, or if for any other reason, an applicant is denied a zoning permit it would have been granted had it been part of a different
religion or religious denomination, RLUIPA has been violated. Because this section
applies to discrimination based on either religion or religious denomination, it can apply
to situations where a city may not be discriminating against all members of a religion, but
merely a particular sub-group or sect.

Unreasonable Limitations:
The government may not totally exclude religious assemblies within its jurisdiction but may impose reasonable limitations on the religious use of land. Courts have said that what is reasonable must be determined in light of all the facts, including the actual availability of land and the economics of religious organizations.

For example – In the 2003 case of Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore, the church applied for and was denied a Conditional Use Permit wherein the City Council stated that: 1) maintaining needed services provided by the Site’s current tenant (a discount food store and recycling center); 2) preventing loss of property tax revenue by replacing a commercial tenant with a non-commercial user; and 3) the possible inadequacy of on-site parking for the Church’s proposed use, and potential adverse consequences on the parking needs of adjacent users. The U.S. District Court found that “The Act’s drafters were concerned that where, as here, a church is required to seek a permit, “[t]he zoning board [does] not have to give a specific reason [for denying the permit]. They can say it is not in the general welfare, or they can say you are taking property off the tax rolls.” Indeed, if a city’s interest in maintaining property tax levels constituted a compelling governmental interest, the most significant provision of RLUIPA would be largely moot, as a decision to deny a religious assembly use of land would almost always be justifiable on that basis.”

Please see our other related articles

Conditional Use Permits
How Zoning Codes Effect Churches
Public Hearings

Disclaimer: Every situation is different and particular facts may vary thereby changing or altering a possible course of action or conclusion. The information contained herein is intended to be general in nature as laws vary between federal, state, counties, and municipalities and therefore may not apply to any given matter. This information is not intended to be legal advice or relied upon as a legal opinion, course of action, accounting, tax, or other professional services. You should consult the proper legal or professional advisor knowledgeable in the area that pertains to your particular situation.

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