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 court in Connecticut ruled that a city zoning commission violated federal law when it ordered a homeowner to stop conducting weekly prayer group meetings in his home. A married couple started hosting prayer group meetings in their home on Sunday afternoons. Participants would park their cars “anywhere they could,” including along the street and in their driveway, front lawn, and backyard. The number of people attending the prayer group varied, but was never less than 10 persons and often was 40 or more. Neighbors began complaining to the local zoning commission about the meetings because of traffic concerns, parking on the street, and parking in the yard. The neighbors were concerned that in the event of an accident, emergency personnel would be unable to maneuver around the vehicles. They also expressed concerns about the safety of children playing along the street. The zoning commission ruled that the use of the home for the weekly prayer group was not a “permissible” use of a single-family residence, and it issued the couple a letter prohibiting any further meetings. The couple asked a federal court to issue an order prohibiting the city from stopping the prayer meetings. It relied on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which provides that
No government shall impose or implement 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 the 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.
Once a property owner demonstrates the existence of a substantial burden on the exercise of religious beliefs, the burden then shifts to the local government to show that the challenged action furthers a compelling state interest by the least restrictive means. The city insisted that it had not violated RLUIPA because (1) it had not placed a substantial burden on religious practices, and (2) it acted in furtherance of a compelling state interest, namely, the enforcement of local zoning laws to protect the health and safety of the community. The court rejected both claims. The court noted that some persons who had previously attended the prayer group meetings were no longer doing so because they were afraid they would be arrested, and it concluded that “the allegation that people are afraid to attend a prayer group meeting because they fear being arrested is a substantial burden that the city has imposed on the prayer group participants. Foregoing or modifying the practice of one’s religion because of governmental interference or fear of punishment by the government is precisely the type of substantial burden Congress intended to trigger RLUIPA’s protections; indeed, it is the concern which impelled adoption of the First Amendment.” The court agreed with the city that it had a “compelling interest” in enforcing zoning laws to protect the health and safety of the community, but it noted that the city also was required to show that its actions furthered a compelling government interest by the “least restrictive means.” This means that the city had to prove that there were “no other alternative forms of regulation” which would fulfill its interests. The court concluded that the city failed to meet this requirement. It then concluded,
In passing RLUIPA, Congress required local governments to be sensitive to the values of religious freedom and expression. It directed that substantial burdens be placed on the exercise of religion only to the extent necessary to accomplish compelling governmental interests. Even absent a federal statute, one would expect that, before banning an ongoing private religious gathering, public officials in a free and tolerant society would enter into a dialogue with the participants to determine if the legitimate safety concerns of the neighbors could be voluntarily allayed. Particularly where the participants are enjoined by religious teachings to “do unto others” as they would have done unto them, it is not unreasonable to expect the parties to be able to agree on means of reducing the impact of weekly prayer meetings on this small cul-de-sac without undermining the benefit that participants seek to derive from the practice of their faith.
Application. This case illustrates an important point. RLUIPA allows local governments to impose land use regulations on property owners in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, but only if two conditions are met: the imposition of the burden (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest. The city in this case successfully argued that a compelling governmental interest supported its decision to prohibit the weekly prayer meetings. However, the city failed to show that its decision was the “least restrictive means” of furthering its interests. Murphy v. Zoning Commission, 148 F.Supp.2d 173 (D. Conn. 2001).
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