Among other privileges, RLUIPA allows religious groups to work around local zoning codes to construct what they need. All across the nation, religious groups are challenging local residential zoning regulations to build churches, synagogues, soup kitchens, daycare centers, schools and other structures associated with their Spiritual and Religious Organizations.
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
A Guide To Federal Religious Land Use Protections
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)
protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. The law was passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, after hearings in which Congress found that houses of worship, particularly those of minority religions and start-up churches, were
disproportionately affected, and in fact often were actively discriminated against, by local land use decisions. Congress also found that, as a whole, religious institutions were treated worse than comparable secular institutions. Congress further found that zoning authorities frequently
were placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations to exercise their faiths in violation of the Constitution.
In response, Congress enacted RLUIPA. This new law provides a number of important protections for the religious freedom of persons, houses of worship, and religious schools. The full text of RLUIPA is available at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/housing/housing_rluipa.htm. Below is a summary of the law’s key provisions, with illustrations of the types of cases that may violate the law.
⊕ RLUIPA prevents infringement of religious exercise.
Land use regulations frequently can impede the ability of churches or other religious institutions to carry out their mission of serving the religious needs of their members. Section 2(a) of RLUIPA thus bars zoning restrictions that impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a person or institution, unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” for imposing the restriction and that the restriction is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.
Minor costs or inconveniences imposed on religious institutions are insufficient to trigger RLUIPA’s protections. The burden must be “substantial.” And, likewise, once the institution has shown a substantial burden on its religious exercise, the government must show not merely
that it has a rational reason for imposing the restriction, but must show that the reason is “compelling.”
♥A church applies for a variance to build a modest addition to its building for Sunday school classes. Despite the church demonstrating that the addition is critical to carrying out its religious mission, that there is adequate space on the lot, and that there would be a negligible impact on traffic and congestion in the area, the city denies the variance.
♥A Jewish congregation that has been meeting in various rented spaces that have proven inadequate for the religious needs of its growing membership purchases land and seeks to build a synagogue. The town council denies the permit, and the only reason given is “we have enough houses of worship in this town already, and want more businesses.”
Because the religious organizations in these cases have demonstrated a substantial burden on their religious exercise, and the justification offered by the city in both cases is not compelling, these cases likely would be violations of RLUIPA, assuming certain jurisdictional requirements
of the statute are met.
⊕ Religious institutions must be treated as well as comparable secular institutions.
Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA provides that religious assemblies and institutions must be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies and institutions. This is known as the “equal terms” provision of RLUIPA.
♥A mosque leases space in a storefront, but zoning officials deny an occupancy permit since houses of worship are forbidden in that zone. However, fraternal organizations, meeting halls, and place of assembly are all permitted as of right in the same zone. Because the statute on its face favors non-religious places of assembly over religious assemblies, this example would be a violation of 2(b)(1).
⊕ RLUIPA bars discrimination among religions.
Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA bars discrimination “against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”
A Hindu congregation is denied a building permit despite meeting all of the requirements for height, setback, and parking required by the zoning code. The zoning administrator is overheard making a disparaging remark about Hindus. If it were proven that the permit was denied because the applicants were Hindu, this would
constitute a violation of 2(b)(2).
⊕ Zoning ordinances may not totally exclude religious assemblies.
Section 2(b)(3)(A) of RLUIPA provides: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.”
A town, seeking to preserve tax revenues, enacts a law that no new churches or other houses of worship will be permitted.
Such total exclusions of religious assemblies are explicitly forbidden by section 2(b)(3)(A).
⊕ RLUIPA forbids laws that unreasonably limit houses of worship.
Section 2(b)(3)(B) of RLUIPA provides: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
♥A city has no zones that permit houses of worship. The only way a church may be built is by having an individual parcel rezoned, a process which in that city takes several years and is extremely expensive. This zoning scheme, if proven to be an unreasonable limitation on houses of worship, would constitute a violation of section 2(b)(3)(B).
Enforcement of RLUIPA Rights
Religious institutions and individuals whose rights under RLUIPA are violated may bring a private civil action for injunctive relief and damages. The Department of Justice also can investigate alleged RLUIPA violations and bring a lawsuit to enforce the statute. The Department can obtain injunctive, but not monetary, relief. If you believe that your rights under RLUIPA may have been violated and you wish to file a complaint or find out more information about the law, you may write to:
Housing and Civil Enforcement Section
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530
or call the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at
(800) 896-7743. Further information about
RLUIPA is available at the Section website at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/housing/index.html.
Information about the Civil Rights Division’s religious liberties initiative, the First Freedom
Project, is available at www.FirstFreedom.gov. You also may call the Special Counsel for
Religious Discrimination at (202) 353-8622.
42 U.S. Code Chapter 21C
(a) Substantial burdens
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that—
(Pub. L. 106–274, § 2,Sept. 22, 2000, 114 Stat. 803.)
Pub. L. 106–274, § 1,Sept. 22, 2000, 114 Stat. 803, provided that: “This Act [enacting this chapter and amending sections 1988, 2000bb–2 and 2000bb–3 of this title] may be cited as the ‘Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000’ ”.
(a) General rule
This section applies in any case in which—
(1) the substantial burden is imposed in a program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance; or
(a) Cause of action
If the only jurisdictional basis for applying a provision of this chapter is a claim that a substantial burden by a government on religious exercise affects, or that removal of that substantial burden would affect, commerce with foreign nations, among the several States, or with Indian tribes, the provision shall not apply if the government demonstrates that all substantial burdens on, or the removal of all substantial burdens from, similar religious exercise throughout the Nation would not lead in the aggregate to a substantial effect on commerce with foreign nations, among the several States, or with Indian tribes.
(a) Religious belief unaffected
If any provision of this chapter or of an amendment made by this chapter, or any application of such provision to any person or circumstance, is held to be unconstitutional, the remainder of this chapter, the amendments made by this chapter, and the application of the provision to any other person or circumstance shall not be affected.
Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to affect, interpret, or in any way address that portion of the first amendment to the Constitution prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion (referred to in this section as the “Establishment Clause”). Granting government funding, benefits, or exemptions, to the extent permissible under the Establishment Clause, shall not constitute a violation of this chapter. In this section, the term “granting”, used with respect to government funding, benefits, or exemptions, does not include the denial of government funding, benefits, or exemptions.
In this chapter:
The use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise shall be considered to be religious exercise of the person or entity that uses or intends to use the property for that purpose.
How some controversial cases wound up.
An unrecognized tribe and its eagle feathers
He was a Native American with eagle feathers at a religious gathering of tribes. But not in the eyes of the feds.
In 2006, Robert Soto and Michael Russell attended an American Indian powwow while in possession of eagle feathers, in violation of the federal Eagle Protection Act, which outlaws the killing of bald and golden eagles and even picking their feathers off the ground.
Soto, a Lipan Apache, asserted he was participating in an Indian religious ceremony. The feathers are sacred to Native Americans.
But a federal Fish and Wildlife Service agent found his tribe wasn’t federally recognized, and Soto surrendered his feathers. Russell, who is married to Soto’s sister, isn’t American Indian and agreed to pay a fine, according to court papers and the America Bar Association Journal.
Soto, however, petitioned the federal Interior Department to return his feathers. The feds said no, because he wasn’t from a recognized tribe.
Soto and Russell sued the federal government, but a federal district court ruled in favor of the government, rejecting the two men’s First Amendment assertions and their claims under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same 1993 statute that Indiana legislators used in developing their new state law.
But last August, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back to that court after finding the government’s action would violate the federal RFRA.
On March 10, the federal government returned the eagle feathers to Soto. But the legal war isn’t over.
The federal government still maintains it can criminally prosecute Soto and his congregants, so Soto is seeking a preliminary injunction, claiming the feds are violating the federal RFRA, said Luke Goodrich, Soto’s attorney who’s with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
A tea called hoasca
A tea used by a Brazilian faith is to them like wine used by Catholics at communion, but U.S. agents considered the brew an illegal drug.
The religious organization O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal uses a sacramental tea called hoasca, made from two plants native to the Amazon that contains dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogen, in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.
The religion is a Christian spiritist faith that originated in Brazil and includes Amazonian and indigenous spiritual traditions.
About 140 members of the church live in the United States and use the tea in a sacred communion.
In May 1999, U.S. Customs agents entered the church headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and seized all of its hoasca.
The church became alarmed and cited how the federal government allows an exception for American Indians to use another illegal drug, peyote, in their religious ceremonies.
In fact, the federal RFRA was designed partly to protect the Native Americans’ use of peyote, said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
“They were a legitimate religion, and this was a legitimate ritual of the religion, and Congress wanted to make sure it was protected,” Toobin said of peyote and the 1993 law.
The Uniao do Vegetal, which means “the union of the plants,” cited that federal law in suing the federal government.
“The government has never explained why it has accommodated The Native American Church’s use of peyote (which contains mescaline, also a controlled substance) but cannot accommodate the UDV’s use of hoasca,” the church said in a statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the church’s favor, saying the federal government failed to show a compelling interest to ban the substance for religious use.
“The peyote exception also fatally undermines the government’s broader contention that the Controlled Substances Act establishes a closed regulatory system that admits of no exceptions under RFRA,” the court ruling said.
The IRS employee and Sikh knife
Recently baptized in the Sikh faith, Kawal Tagore went to her job with the IRS in Houston in 2005 carrying a new religious item: a 9-inch kirpan, a small ceremonial sword that resembles a knife but has an edge that is blunted or curved.
Tagore needed to carry the kirpan at all times as a mandatory article of faith.
But the federal government banned her from the building, citing the kirpan as a “dangerous weapon” with a more than 3-inch blade, and she was later fired from her accounting job because she refused to keep the kirpan out of the workplace.
Tagore sued the government under the federal law.
Tagore cited how the government allowed the public to enter the federal building with more threatening objects: real 2.5-inch blade knives and metal canes, said her attorneys with the Newar Law Firm and the Becket Fund. Also, federal employees inside the building were allowed to use box cutters and cake knives.
In November, the federal government agreed to settle the case shortly after the start of Tagore’s trial.
The settlement included no admission of wrongdoing, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
Tagore’s attorneys described the settlement as “a groundbreaking policy allowing Sikhs and other religious minorities to wear religious symbols and attire in federal buildings,” they said in a statement.