Key point § 7-06.4. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits state and local governments from imposing a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion unless the regulation is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
A federal appeals court ruled that a church's rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act may have been violated by a county's refusal to allow it to build a new and larger facility to accommodate its growing congregation. A Maryland church owns a place of worship and rents a nearby satellite facility. Its main facility seats 450 people and the satellite facility seats 300. Total weekly attendance for all services is about 1,500 people. To accommodate its congregation, the church must host four services every Sunday—three in its main facility and one in its satellite facility. The number of services restricts the length of the services, and forces communion to take place after the services.
Time and space limitations also sometimes require the church to cut short its important "altar call" practice, in which attendees may publicly dedicate their lives to Christ, join the church, or request specific prayers. After the service, the director of the altar call ministry conducts conversations with those who have come forward regarding their spiritual beliefs. Because the church itself lacks facilities to accommodate these conversations, the director must use a small, partitioned area in the visitor center.
Even with four services each Sunday, the church faces overcrowding, and ushers must sometimes prevent worshipers from entering the sanctuary. The church also lacks facilities for other programs, including religious education, health education, and various counseling services. And because adults use all available classrooms, the church is unable to provide programs for its youth.
For all of these reasons, the church purchased a 119-acre property in 2004 to construct a 3,000-seat church, a school, a daycare building, a social hall, and offices. The property is located in an area the county designated as an "agricultural reserve." Under the county's water and sewer plan, however, the county generally did not provide public service to properties in the agricultural reserve. The county denied the church's request for an exception, but county officials rejected the request at a meeting in which they also approved an amendment to the water and sewer plan prohibiting public water and sewer service to private institutional facilities in the agricultural reserve.
The church challenged the county's denial of its application for public water and sewer service as unlawful, arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, and a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA"). Two years later, a federal court dismissed the church's challenge, and the church appealed.
The appeals court's ruling
RLUIPA is a federal law that prohibits the implementation of any land-use regulation in a manner that:
imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution—
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
RLUIPA defines "religious exercise" to include "the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise."
The appeals court observed that "when a religious organization buys property reasonably expecting to build a church, governmental action impeding the building of that church may impose a substantial burden," and "this is so even though other suitable properties might be available, because the delay, uncertainty, and expense" of selling the current property and finding a new one are themselves burdensome."
In rejecting the county's argument that any burden to the church was not substantial because it already owned one facility and rented another, the court noted:
[The church] has presented considerable evidence that its current facilities inadequately serve its needs. Specifically, insufficient space forces it to hold four services every Sunday, and to shorten services, interfering with Communion and the church's altar call practice. Its present facilities are overcrowded, requiring ushers to turn people away from services and limiting its ability to offer various programs. The pastor testified that the lack of adequate facilities creates a sense of disunity because the congregation is divided into so many separate services.
The court stressed that "a governmental regulation violates RLUIPA by imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise only if the regulation [is not] the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest." The court concluded the county failed to demonstrate that its water and sewer plan was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, and noted that the county failed to present any evidence that its interest in preserving the integrity of the agricultural reserve "could not be served by less restrictive means, like a minimum lot-size requirement or an individualized review process."
What This Means For Churches:
This case illustrates the application of RLUIPA to churches, and demonstrates how this law can provide churches with valuable protection when their building plans are obstructed by government regulations. Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, 706 F.3d 548 (4th Cir. 2013).
Key point 7-03.3. Most courts apply the "neutral principles of law" rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in "hierarchical" churches. Under this rule, the civil courts apply neutral principles of law, involving no inquiry into church doctrine, in resolving church property disputes. Generally, this means applying neutral legal principles to nondoctrinal language in any one or more of the following documents: (1) deeds to church property; (2) a church's corporate charter; (3) a state law addressing the resolution of church property disputes; (4) church bylaws; or (5) a parent denomination's bylaws.