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RLUIPA in the United States Supreme Court

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on February 17, 2019 Category: Equal Terms, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases

Dalton & Tomich, PLC has been retained by the Three Hundred and Forty Two (342) parents of students who attend Tree of Life Christian School in Upper Arlington, Ohio to file an Amicus brief in support of the school’s request to have the United States Supreme Court review and reverse the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision captioned,Tree of Life Christian School v. Upper Arlington, Ohio.  A copy of our brief, written by Daniel Dalton and Christopher Lund is here. 

Tree of Life presents important questions about RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision, which places religious assemblies—like schools and churches—on equal footing with secular assemblies located in the same zoning district and under the same zoning code.  The parents we represent are individuals dedicated to raising their children up in a strong religious faith tradition. They believe Christian Schools offer a Christ-centered learning environment and are committed to achieving educational goals grounded in biblical truth. This type of education provides the framework to help children discover and understand the truth about the world around them and equip them to address the issues from a Christian perspective.

We believe the opinion of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals adopts an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of RLUIPA.  Fifteen years earlier, the opinion’s author wrote another opinion—one that held RLUIPA unconstitutional as a facial violation of the Establishment Clause. See Cutter v. Wilkinson,349 F.3d 257 (6th Cir. 2003).

The Supreme Court, of course, unanimously reversed.  See Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709 (2005).

But maybe this helps to explain why the court below, and others, have adopted constricted interpretations of RLUIPA that defy the statutory text.  Congress saw RLUIPA as creating a necessary set of protections for vulnerable religious institutions.  But many judges are more suspicious of RLUIPA and, as a result, have adopted confining and unjustified interpretations of it.  The opinion below is a good example.  It mentions the Establishment Clause repeatedly, and frequently raises the concern that RLUIPA unfairly gives religious institutions preferential treatment.  With such a mindset, a narrow construction for RLUIPA follows quickly.  (“Did Congress intend for the statute to require municipalities to extend preferential treatment to religious entities? We think not.  Such a requirement . . .  would likely run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause;  (Thapar, J., dissenting) (“[C]ourts have forgotten this country’s sacred vow and failed to give RLUIPA the effect its written text demands.”).

We urge the Supreme Court to restore to RLUIPA to its true and intended scope.  Our clients are parents of children who attend Tree of Life.  They believe deeply in its religious mission, and they have seen that religious mission undermined by the City of Arlington’s actions in this case.  Our clients simply to tell their story, in part because that story matters in itself and in part because that story bears on the reasons why Congress adopted RLUIPA, as well as the proper construction of that statute.  We believe the decision below undermines religious schools and RLUIPA’s protection of them.  In particular, we object to its conclusion that local governments can claim tax revenue as a compelling governmental interest for banning religious schools. Finally, for reasons that follow, we believe the Court should simply apply the plaint, statutory text, not a judicial gloss, when evaluating claims under RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision.

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If you have questions or concerns about your religious school and the restrictions placed on it by a local community, or if you wish to have us appeal an adverse decision or protect a viable decision of a lower court, contact Daniel Dalton or one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your religious land use issue.

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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.