Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Religious Land Use Victory

Also in JWR, a court victory for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA):

It should be self-evident. Unless you are on a plane or a boat, religious expression involves some kind of land use. Unfortunately, far too many municipalities are ignoring this fact when applying their zoning laws and religious liberty suffers. In response, the courts have put teeth into the RLUIPA, a young civil rights law designed to restore full religious freedom to the land use context.

This development is necessary as local zoning officials have time and again trampled on the rights of sincere religious believers, and for a variety of reasons. Many municipalities shut the door on houses of worship to prevent real or imagined tax-base erosion. Others listen too closely to the NIMBY fears of activist neighbors who, oddly enough, think houses of worship make bad neighbors. And finally, as hard experience has shown, cities and townships at times use zoning laws as a cover for outright religious bigotry.

As a result, religious expression has slowly been banished and ghettoized; sometimes through supposedly "general" laws, sometimes through impenetrable red tape or impossible conditions, and sometimes by arbitrarily denying permits to the "wrong type" of church or religion. Houses of worship are routinely banished to the far corners of municipalities by being categorized as "inconsistent with the character" of residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural zones in turn (are there any places left?).

Not to be outdone, some municipalities actually amend their zoning laws in direct response to permit applications by religious groups. These religious gerrymanders leave congregations with literally no place to go. Recognizing these threats to religious liberty, the United States Congress unanimously passed RLUIPA in 2000. RLUIPA is robust. It prevents municipalities from discriminating against or "substantially burdening" sincere religious exercise without a compelling reason and, with the help of the courts, is providing a potent counterweight to the discretionary power of local zoning officials.

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