American flag waving in blue skyMeasure was a top priority of a 50-member coalition of groups from across the religious spectrum

September 22, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today marks the 10th anniversary of a landmark bill protecting the free exercise of religion in two areas where conflicts between government and religion often arise – land use and for those confined to government institutions such as prisons.  The Baptist Joint Committee led a diverse coalition of more than 50 organizations urging Congress to support the legislation, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

The law forbids state and local governments from imposing a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion in cases of land use restrictions and institutions such as prisons, hospitals and group homes, unless they can demonstrate that imposition of such a burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. While the bill does not exempt churches from zoning and other land use regulations, it requires zoning officials to have a compelling reason to restrict religious exercise and to treat religious applicants at least as well as secular ones.

Visit the BJC’s resource page on RLUIPA at

In a report on the 10th anniversary released by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department noted that RLUIPA “has had a positive impact on protecting the religious freedom of a wide range of faith groups, and had a particularly significant impact protecting the religious freedom of minorities.”

The Department reported that:
•    It has opened 51 RLUIPA land use investigations, filed seven lawsuits, filed 10 amicus briefs, and intervened in 71 lawsuits to defend RLUIPA’s constitutionality.
•    Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist land use cases made up a disproportionate number of its RLUIPA investigations —13 times their representation in the population.
•    Half of its land use investigations involving Christians have involved racial or ethnic minorities.
•    Of the 18 land use matters involving Muslims it has reviewed, eight have been opened since May of this year.

When private lawsuits are factored in, the report states that “thousands of individuals and institutions from a wide range of faith traditions” have been actively protected by RLUIPA in its 10 years of existence.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said recent events involving the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York City are prime examples of why churches and other houses of worship need land use protection.

“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths from restrictive regulations that too often would choke the free exercise of religion,” Walker said. “Discrimination against particular religious views has no place in land use decisions.”

The measure was a top priority of a coalition of groups from across the religious spectrum that originally formed to help pass the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA provided federal statutory protection for religious liberty after a 1990 Supreme Court ruling in Employment Div. v. Smith declared that the Free Exercise Clause does not prohibit neutral laws of general applicability that burden religious practice. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), however, the Court ruled that RFRA is unconstitutional as it applies to state and local laws because Congress had exceeded its authority.  RFRA remains in effect as applied to the federal government.

RLUIPA was introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., and co-sponsored by Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Chet Edwards, D-Texas. It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The measure passed Congress on July 27, 2000, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 22, 2000.  In signing the bill, Clinton thanked members of the coalition for the “central role they played in crafting the legislation.”

“Their work in passing this legislation once again demonstrates that people of all political bents and faiths can work together for common purpose that benefits all Americans,” Clinton said. Then-BJC General Counsel Melissa Rogers was present in the Oval Office for the signing.

Other groups in the coalition included the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Legal Society, American Baptist Churches USA, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Family Research Council, Prison Fellowship Ministries,and groups representing Muslims, Catholics and various Protestant groups.

“The BJC is proud to have played a leadership role in convincing Congress to pass RLUIPA and defending its constitutionality in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Walker said.  “Congregations — especially religious minorities — are getting a fairer shake from the zoning authorities, andincarcerated persons are freer to exercise their religion than they were before RLUIPA became law 10 years ago.”

The law was challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 in Cutter v. Wilkinson. The case reached the Supreme Court after members of Satanist, Wicca and other non-mainstream religions sued Ohio‘s corrections department, claiming its officials denied them opportunities to gather for worship or use particular religious ceremonial items.

The High Court ruled unanimously that the section of RLUIPA dealing with prisoners does not violate the Establishment Clause. “RLUIPA … protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government’s permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion,” wrote Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Court.


The Baptist Joint Committee is a 74-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.