Written by Don Byrd

Writing for The Atlantic, Emma Green takes a deep look into the federal law designed to protect houses of worship from unnecessary local zoning restrictions. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) requires local governments to demonstrate a compelling reason for rejecting building requests. The law has allowed mosques, synagogues and churches, often with the help of the Justice Department filing suit on their behalf, to challenge permit denials that were grounded in religious animus or are otherwise unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.

As Green reports, however,  the majority of congregations that face zoning denials are not taken up by the DOJ and lack the resources to pursue often lengthy and costly litigation successfully.

In theory, any religious group that is lost in the legal system can turn to the federal government for help. But DOJ has limited resources and has to consider a number of questions before taking a case; it chooses its battles carefully. Among other things, the department weighs “whether a case involves important or recurring issues, particularly serious violations of law, or if it is a case that will set precedent for future cases,” according to a 2010 report it released on RLUIPA.

Religious groups that don’t have a cause the government is looking to champion—and don’t have the zeal or resources for a years-long fight with a local zoning board—might be out of luck. 

RLUIPA is an essential religious liberty statute that has transformed the rights particularly of a community’s religious minorities who seek only a sufficient place to worship. Green’s piece, however, paints a troubling picture of the breadth of zoning challenges faced by too many congregations, representing all faiths across the country, and the difficulty they encounter attempting to enforce their rights under the law. 

Houses of worship should not have to face years of litigation and the prospect of bankruptcy to assert their rights. Local governments should be educated on their responsibilities under federal law, and should do their part to protect religious liberty by refraining from using zoning regulations to burden religious exercise unnecessarily.

For more background, see the BJC’s resource page on RLUIPA.