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The use of RLUIPA to gain access to entry of a religious facility

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on August 27, 2012 Category: Exclusions, RLUIPA

A federal judge has granted a Temporary Restraining Order in favor of a Mosque in Tennessee. In United States v. Rutherford County, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department both filed lawsuits against Rutherford County, Tennessee. The dispute arose out of a new mosque that has been completed in Murfreesboro, which is located near Nashville. Anti-Muslim sentiment from some members of the community has made progress on the mosque slow and difficult. The members have received numerous threats, and construction equipment has been set on fire by vandals. Trouble has continued even now that construction of the facility is complete.

Initially, the mosque was successful in obtaining the required building permits despite heated protests by some in the community. However, opponents of the project filed a state lawsuit objecting to the issuance of the permit to the mosque. The opponents were successful in state court when the Chancery judge ruled that the Planning Commission had not given sufficient notice of the hearing where the permit was granted, and that the case deserved special treatment because of the reaction of the community. Ironically enough, county officials, who are defendants in the federal case, had actually been defending the rights of the Muslims but now were constrained by the decision of the state court. Suit was soon filed in federal court to obtain the permits to begin use of the facility.

It is no easy task to obtain a Temporary Restraining Order in federal court. There are a number of factors that a plaintiff must satisfy in order to convince a federal judge that relief must be given before the case is heard fully on the merits. One of these factors is the plaintiff’s likelihood of success on the merits of the case. In this case, the federal judge concluded that the “Plaintiff has demonstrated a strong or substantial likelihood of success on the merits of its claims.” This was demonstrated by showing that the orders of the state court judge violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by placing a heightened requirement on the mosque and by substantially burdening its free exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest. The judge also wrote that the mosque would suffer “immediate and irreparable injury, harm, loss, or damage” if the Temporary Restraining Order was not granted. With the granting of the Temporary Restraining Order, county officials are now required to grant the required permits so that the mosque may begin operations and worship immediately.

This case shows how swiftly and decisively a court may act on a strong RLUIPA claim. Certainly not every RLUIPA plaintiff will be granted such immediate and effective aid by the courts, but RLUIPA is assuredly a strong and indispensable tool when seeking to enforce religious land use rights. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich plc have extensive, nation-wide experience with RLUIPA cases. We represent people and institutions of all faiths. If you feel that your rights or the rights of your institution are being violated in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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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.