In recent land cases applying RLUIPA, Baltimore County to pay $1.1 million for discrimination, Supreme Court asked to intervene in Minnesota

by | May 10, 2021

For the third time in the last three years, Maryland’s Baltimore County has settled a religious discrimination lawsuit with a church over the county’s denial of a land use permit. According to the Baltimore Sun, the county agreed to pay Hunt Valley Baptist Church $1.1 million after a federal court found the rejection of Hunt Valley’s application to build a facility in an area zoned for conservation to protect a watershed violated the church’s religious liberty rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA prohibits state and local governments from, among other things, implementing land use regulations “in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” The court ruled in favor of the church in 2020 because Baltimore County allows the construction of public schools in similar conservation zones and thus fails the “equal treatment” test.

By the [Baltimore County Zoning Regulations’] plain language, religious institutions like Hunt Valley must obtain a special exception, while public schools are permitted as of right. The County has put forward no rationale for the disfavored treatment of religious entities, given that the purpose of the BCZR is to prevent contamination of the local water supplies. 

The county paid a total of $875,000 in 2020 and 2019 to resolve a pair of other RLUIPA suits filed in 2017, according to the Sun.

Meanwhile, four members of an Amish community in Minnesota have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a state court’s determination that laws requiring them to install septic tank systems for public health reasons do not violate RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” provision. That prong bars government land use regulations from substantially burdening religion unless necessary to further a compelling government interest. 

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in June that public health is a compelling government interest and that the septic tank requirement is the least restrictive means of achieving that goal. The state has responded to the petition, arguing there is no need for U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

RLUIPA does not ensure that religious actors are immune from land use restrictions, but it is an important framework for adjudicating disputes when such restrictions impact religion. RLUIPA offers robust religious liberty protections in such cases while also being mindful of other important government interests.