American flag waving in blue skyWritten by Don Byrd

An Islamic Center will be permitted to open in Kennesaw, Georgia, after all. The City Council voted 5-0 to approve an application to use a retail space as a mosque, over the objections of a handful of rowdy protestors. What’s unusual about this vote is that the same group of 5 Councillors voted 4-1 last month to deny the permit. What happened in the last month to change their minds? RLUIPA happened.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is a federal law that protect religious liberty by prohibiting local governments from denying religious land use applications unless it is necessary to further a compelling interest. RLUIPA sets a very high standard – and rightfully so – for rejecting an application for the religious use of land. (See more about RLUIPA at the BJC’s resource page here).

The Marietta Daily Journal reports on the role RLUIPA played in changing the minds of the Kennesaw City Council:

Councilwoman Debra Williams said in a statement to the MDJ after the meeting that all she could say about changing her vote on the issue was “RLUIPA trumps.”

Doug Dillard, the applicant’s attorney, threatened the city with a lawsuit after the council’s decision to deny the application. Dillard said he could file a $1 million claim invoking Religious Land Use Act in Cobb Superior Court, according to a letter included in the application presented to the council at its Dec. 1 meeting.

After this warning, Mathews said all four council members who voted to deny the mosque individually asked the mayor in private to change their previous vote at the council’s Dec. 10 meeting.

RLUIPA has been the law since 2000, but for whatever reason seems to be a well-kept secret from local government officials. In related news, the Justice Department announced a lawsuit settlement with a Minnesota city over its denial of a permit for a mosque.