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The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, also known as RLUIPA, found at 42 U.S.C. 2000cc, is Congress’ second attempt to address the inequities of subjective land use decisions by local communities who routinely deny religious entities the right to use land for religious assembly, but allow commercial assembly to occur. This law, co-sponsored by Senators Hatch and Kennedy, was unanimously enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000 as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), where the Court invalidated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb, et seq.

Congress found many cases where local communities banned religious uses based on loss of tax revenue. This is due to the fact that religious uses do not pay property taxes. Communities typically deny the uses in order to maintain areas for tax generating uses, such as retail, residential, entertainment or industrial uses, but excluding religious uses; this is pure and simple religious discrimination.

In leveling the playing field, Congress provided four separate areas of relief in RLUIPA for churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. The first, called the Substantial Burden prong, provides that a government may not impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a religious assembly or institution. The exception to this is unless the government is able to show the imposition of the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The second, called the Equal Terms prong, 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.

The third area of relief provided by Congress is the Non-Discrimination clause. This provides that a local government may not make a land use determination that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.

The final area of relief under RLUIPA is the Exclusions and Unreasonable Limitations clause. It provides that a local government may not impose or implement a land use regulation that: (a) totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction; or (b) unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction. Where a violation of the law is established, RLUIPA provides money damages and injunctive relief as remedies.

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Have you recently purchased a building or land and discovered you can’t use it because it isn’t zoned for religious assembly? Learn how to navigate the process and win the right to use your property.

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The United States Department of Justice statement on the land-use provisions of RLUIPA provides additional information on the law and answers several common questions about what it entails.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.