A federal district court in California ruled that a city could not seize a church’s property through eminent domain.

Church Law and Tax 2003-09-01


Key point 7-06.3. Local zoning commissions may violate a church’s first amendment right to the free exercise of religion by imposing unreasonable restrictions on the church’s ability to purchase and develop land for church use. Churches whose constitutional rights are violated in this manner may be able to sue for money damages under federal law.

Key point. 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 district court in California ruled that a city could not seize a church’s property through eminent domain in order to allow a discount warehouse to be constructed that would generate more tax revenues. A church grew rapidly from 50 members to more than 5,000. As a result of this growth, the church outgrew its 700-seat sanctuary and the church was forced to conduct 6 services each weekend and “bus” parishioners from remote parking areas. But even with the buses and multiple weekend services, the church is unable to accommodate all the people that want to attend its services and it is unable to conduct outreach to potential new members. The physical constraints of its current facility also limit the church’s ability to conduct many of its different programs including youth conferences, women’s ministries, daycare facilities, English language classes for native Spanish speakers, and missionary training. The church eventually purchased 18 acres of property, and developed detailed plans to use the property. Its proposed church center would contain a 300,000 square foot worship center with more than 4,700 fixed seats, multiple classrooms and a multi-purpose room for youth and other ministries. The proposed center would also have a youth activity center, gymnasium, and study rooms for after school youth programs. The facility would also include a daycare facility for church members and the surrounding community and a religious bookstore. The proposed center would have sufficient space for all of the church’s current ministries, community service programs, and worship services. The church contacted city officials to obtain a conditional use permit that would allow it to build its new facility.

What the church did not know was that city officials had other plans for the church’s property. Initially, the city planned a 45-acre development that included the church’s property, and that would have three major retail anchor stores and a mix of restaurants, smaller retail stores, and movie theaters. This plan was eventually abandoned, and a modified plan was adopted that only pertained to the church’s 18 acres. The city planned on allowing a large discount warehouse (such as Costco) to locate on the property. The city then offered to buy the property from the church at a specified price. When the church rejected this offer, the city instituted eminent domain proceedings to compel the church to sell its property to the city.

The church filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the city’s refusal to issue the conditional use permit and the eminent domain proceeding violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as well as federal and state constitutional protections of religious liberty.


RLUIPA prohibits any government agency from imposing or implementing “a 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.” The court concluded that the city’s refusal to grant the church a conditional use permit “involves a land use regulation or system of land use regulations, under which a government makes, or has in place formal or informal procedures or practices that permit the government to make, individualized assessments.” The court also concluded that the city’s attempt to seize the church’s property through eminent domain “falls under RLUIPA’s definition of land use regulation which is defined as a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts the claimant’s use or development of land. The city’s authority to exercise eminent domain … would unquestionably limit or restrict the church’s use or development of land.”

freedom of religion

In 1990 the United States Supreme Court ruled that “neutral laws of general applicability” that impose burdens on religious practice do not violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom, and need not be based on a “compelling government interest.” However, the federal district court noted that the city’s refusal to grant the church’s conditional use permit was an “individualized assessment” for which a compelling government interest must be proven. It observed, “The city’s land-use decisions here are not generally applicable laws. [Its] refusal to grant the conditional use permit invites individualized assessments of the subject property and the owner’s use of such property, and contain mechanisms for individualized exceptions.” Even the city’s eminent domain proceeding constituted an individualized assessment, the court concluded.

The court concluded that the city’s actions were not neutral, but instead specifically aimed at discriminating against the church’s religious uses. It observed,

Why had the city, so complacent before the church purchased the property, suddenly burst into action? Although some innocent explanations are feasible—such as new leadership or robust economic growth—the activity suggests that the city was simply trying to keep the church out of the city, or at least from the use of its own land. This suspicion is heightened by the nature of the projects. The city’s plan called for the church’s property to be used as business offices. Yet, while the city has been insistent that a church would be inconsistent with this plan, it has proceeded to plan a shopping/entertainment center and a strip mall anchored by Costco, neither of which are [sic] consistent with a business park …. Similarly, the city’s claim that it needs the tax revenue of a retail store is dubious. In her state of the city address [the mayor] trumpeted [the city’s] good fiscal condition, stating that the city continues to set aside 25% in reserves annually while still delivering the highest quality of service to our community.


There can be no violation of RLUIPA or the first amendment unless government action imposes a substantial burden on core religious beliefs. The court concluded that this requirement was met, “Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion. Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If a congregation could not build a church it could not exist.” The court also concluded that no compelling governmental interest supported the city’s actions. In rejecting the city’s argument that “revenue generation” (having a Costco store on the church’s property) was a compelling interest, the court observed, “If revenue generation were a compelling state interest, municipalities could exclude all religious institutions from their cities.”

Application. This case will be a useful precedent for any church that is encountering resistance from city officials in building a new sanctuary. Here are the main points: (1) A city’s refusal to grant a conditional use permit is a “land use regulation” that is subject to the protections of RLUIPA. (2) A city’s attempt to seize church property through the exercise of eminent domain is a “land use regulation” that is subject to the protections of RLUIPA. (3) “Neutral laws of general applicability” can impose burdens on the exercise of religion without offending the first amendment whether or not they are supported by a compelling government interest. However, the court concluded that a compelling governmental interest was required to sustain the city’s actions in this case because (a) the city’s actions were not “neutral” but rather were hostile to religion, and (b) the city’s actions amounted to “individualized assessments.” (4) The city’s desire for additional tax revenue is not a compelling governmental interest that would justify its denial of the church’s conditional use permit or its attempt to seize the church’s property through eminent domain. Cottonwood Christian Center v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, 218 F.Supp.2d 1203 (C.D. Cal. 2002).

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