First court victory signals limitations on church zoning restrictions
Few Americans noticed when the awkwardly named Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was signed into law last fall. But now
that a church has won the first case under the act, more people are likely to
read the fine print.
The case involved the refusal of city officials in Grand Haven, Mich.,
to allow a church to move into a small shopping center. Why? Because the town's
zoning ordinance excluded religious worship in certain retail districts
(although it permitted private clubs, lodge halls, theaters and other gathering
The church argued that the zoning law unfairly discriminated against
religious organizations in violation of both the First Amendment and RLUIPA,
the law that now requires government officials to show a “compelling interest”
before using zoning laws to restrict religious organizations.
The church's victory sends a message that RLUIPA may have teeth.
Cities may no longer be able to zone religious groups out of a jurisdiction,
and it appears that any land-use regulations that restrict religious buildings
must now be justified by a strong state interest.
Is RLUIPA constitutional? After all, the Supreme Court has already
struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a much broader law designed
to strengthen the religious-liberty claims of religious individuals and groups.
The justices ruled that the court, not the Congress, had the authority to
interpret the meaning of the First Amendment's free exercise clause.
RLUIPA was crafted narrowly to avoid the problems of the earlier bill.
But it could still face tough sledding when a test case reaches the high court.
Meanwhile, the settlement in the Michigan case signals that religious groups
have a powerful weapon against restrictive zoning ordinances around the
However RLUIPA eventually fares in the court, the justices apparently
see no problem with letting states protect religious groups from attempts to
zone them out of certain neighborhoods. Just last week, the Supreme Court
refused to take a case challenging a Massachusetts law that says zoning
ordinances cannot ban the construction of religious buildings in any zoning
area. (The law does provide that the state can set requirements for such things
as size and height.)
The Massachusetts case involved construction of a Mormon temple near
Boston. In an effort to keep the temple from being built in a residential area,
a group of citizens filed suit claiming that the law was unconstitutional
because it favored religion.
The lower courts upheld the law, ruling that religion isn't
“established” by government's finding that religious institutions are
compatible with various land uses and don't detract from the quality of life in
Now the Supreme Court has let that ruling stand.
These victories for religious groups are really victories for
religious liberty. After all, the First Amendment says that the government
“shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].”
“No law” cannot, of course, mean absolutely no law. There are times
when, in the public interest, government must limit religious practice.
But before the government does anything to restrict the right of
people to worship openly and freely, government officials should be required to
demonstrate not only that the state has a compelling interest, but also that
there is no other, less restrictive way of accomplishing that interest.
That's what RLUIPA mandates and the First Amendment requires.