• 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 New York ruled that a city’s refusal to issue a special use permit to allow a religious day school to expand its facilities violated federal law. The school claimed that by not allowing it to pursue the construction and renovations outlined in its special permit application the city had imposed a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion without any compelling government interest to do so in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. RLUIPA deals with “protection of land use as religious exercise” and establishes a “general rule” 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 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 goes on to provide the following specific protections: (1) no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution; (2) no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination; and (3) no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that (A) totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction; or (B) unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.
Did the city’s decision to reject the school’s request for a special use permit violate RLUIPA? Yes, concluded the court, since it imposed a “substantial burden” on the school’s exercise of religion:
The very existence of the school is premised on a religious mission. And necessary to the fulfillment of this mission is the existence of facilities which the school deems adequate to carry on its religious instruction … making the city’s complete denial of [the special uses permit] a substantial burden on their exercise of religion …. While it is true that the students may still, without the special permit modification gather to pray and be educated, their religious experience is limited by the current size and condition of the school buildings. Moreover, the school should be able, within reason, to accommodate the growing number of students who wish to pursue a religious education [in its facilities].
Since the school demonstrated a prima facie case that RLUIPA has been violated, the burden shifted to the city to demonstrate that the land use regulation furthers a “compelling government interest” and that the land use regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest. The court stressed “the extreme difficulty in carrying this burden,” which it called “the most demanding test known to constitutional law,” and concluded that the city’s reference to “traffic and parking” concerns failed to do so. While the court agreed that traffic concerns are legitimate, it “could hardly call them compelling.” Further, the city’s concern over inadequate parking for an expanded school was “even less compelling.” The court referred to the city’s denial of the school’s permit application as an example of the “Not In My Back Yard syndrome.”
The court rejected the city’s claim that RLUIPA is unconstitutional. It concluded, “Whatever the true percentage of cases in which religious organizations have improperly suffered at the hands of local zoning authorities, we certainly are in no position to quibble with Congress’s ultimate judgment that the undeniably low visibility of land regulation decisions may well have worked to undermine the Free Exercise rights of religious organizations around the country.”
Application. This case is important for the following three reasons. First, it upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA. Second, it defined a “substantial burden” on religious practice to include an inability to expand or renovate a church or church school. Third, the court emphasized the “extreme difficulty” that local zoning boards will face in attempting to justify denials of building permits on the basis of a compelling government interest. Westchester Day School v. Village of Mamaroneck, 280 F.Supp.2d 230 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).
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