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Religious Construction Likely on the Rise, Litigation to Follow?

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on November 19, 2015 Category: Religious Institutions, RLUIPA
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According to a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, a 13-year decline in American religious building construction may soon end. The article states that construction of religious buildings in the U.S. (which includes churches, temples, mosques, and other buildings) peaked in 2002 and has been steadily declining ever since. Construction of religious buildings this year is predicted to be an astonishing 82% lower than in 2002. But what led to the decline and what does a potential increase in religious buildings mean for the future?

The Wall Street Journal cites to another article from 2014 which points to a confluence of “…changing donation habits, a shift away from the construction of massive megachurches and, more broadly, a growing taste for alternatives to the traditional house of worship” as reasons for the decline. Many religious organizations have begun to spend finances on different aspects of ministry rather than buildings, choosing to make due with lower-maintenance or lower-expense buildings if it allows them to increase community outreach and participation.

As part of a larger trend, there is also the reality that formal religious participation is declining in the U.S. With the participation decline comes a decline in donations to pay for new buildings. Lower participation also means there is less need for new, bigger houses of worship. And of course the national economic recession in the mid to late 2000’s further exacerbated financial issues of religious organizations. Further, many local governments are not receptive to churches locating within their borders because church property is tax exempt and may trigger other zoning restrictions such as the location of restaurants that serve alcohol. In short, there has simply been an unusual amount of factors all converging to drive down religious construction at the same time. But now there are signs that things are poised for a turnaround.

According to the Commerce Department, spending on religious building construction is actually up 2.3% when compared with the same time period in 2014. The Journal quoted one prominent economist as being “reasonably sure” a rebound is at hand for the religious construction industry. Although a return to the peak levels of 2002 is not likely in the near future, a prediction from economist Robert Murray states that construction should increase 34.4% over its current level by the year 2020. With a rise in religious buildings likely coming very soon, what does this mean?

As an overall proposition, this is almost certainly good news for religious organizations. Buildings cannot be built without people and funding, and economists are predicting that there will be enough of both to support a substantial increase in building. But as construction increases, so will opportunities for conflict.

One factor that can make religious construction difficult does not show known signs of improving, and that is government opposition. As mentioned briefly above, local governments can be among the biggest hurdles for new religious construction. And the discrimination takes many forms. While it is becoming rare to find government officials willing to say they are against certain faiths, religious groups can receive unequal treatment due to their tax-exempt status, or their perceived impact on business and entertainment districts. While these forms of discrimination may seem less objectionable, they are still unlawful.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, along with the United States Constitution, makes it unlawful for a government to discriminate against religious organizations in regard to land use. Some states have similar religious protection laws as well. As the amount of religious construction increases, it will be vital for church leaders to be familiar with the law so their organization’s rights can be safeguarded.

Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the leading RLUIPA and religious land use litigation firm nationwide. Daniel Dalton literally wrote the book on the topic. We have represented organizations of various faiths and have won victories all over the country. If your religious organization is considering a new building project or is encountering resistance with an existing project, please do not hesitate to call or email us. We would be happy to discuss your case and craft a solution for you.

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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.