House of Worship Protections under the Religious
Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

Key considerations when merging law firms

A house of worship may have enhanced rights that exceed the normal protections afforded a nonprofit. Among the most important are those under the RLUIPA.

Introduction

The Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq is a federal law that was passed a number of years ago, which has gained tremendous strength over the years as a way of protecting houses of worship in a way that normal nonprofits might not enjoy.

What is the RLUIPA?

The RLUIPA is a law that recognizes the enhanced protections afforded houses of worship. While a standard nonprofit will have protections under the First Amendment, the RLUIPA exceeds those protections and gives the houses of worship special rights. As stated by the Supreme Court in the 2022 case of Ramirez v. Collier, the statute “aim[s] to ensure ‘greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the First Amendment.’” Id. at 1277.

What is Protected under the RLUIPA?

The RLUIPA allows a person to assert that their religious liberty has been violated through a government regulation that “imposes a substantial burden on a specific religious exercise.” Once that assertion is made in court, the burden shifts to the government to prove that the burden is justified. Importantly, the government cannot rely on “broadly formulated interests.” Id. at 1278.

Protections for Houses of Worship in the Area of Land Use and Zoning

One of the more controversial aspects of this law is its application to zoning and land use. In a typical case, a house of worship may apply to the local zoning board for approval of an extension of the latter’s facility. This usually involves additional parking in what may be a residential zone. Under those circumstances, if the zoning board disapproves of the application because of the intensity of the use, the house of worship may potentially bring suit under the RLUIPA if it can prove that this is a violation of the statutory language that states “[n]o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms than a non-religious assembly or institution.” RLUIPA at 42 USC Section 2000cc(b)(1). It should be noted that there is a split among the various federal Circuit Courts as to whether this language should be implemented in a more or less restrictive manner; in other words, the rights that a house of worship may assert will depend upon the part of the United States in which it is situated.

Conclusion

While the RLUIPA is not a panacea, by which a house of worship can do anything it pleases regardless of the law, it is a very important tool that should be utilized in appropriate cases. The Nissenbaum Law Group welcomes inquiries by houses of worship as to whether and to what extent that law applies to them.

PUBLICATIONS & PRESENTATIONS

Author (Paperback Book), Assembling the Pieces: Supercharging Unitarian Universalist Social Action Committees, Gary D. Nissenbaum, Create Space (2011)

Author (Article), Wrongful Posting on the Internet: The Privacy You Save Could be Your Own, NJ Lawyer Magazine, Gary D. Nissenbaum & Laura J. Magedoff, April 2008

Author (Article), In the Arena: Litigating for the American Civil Liberties Union-NJ, NJ Lawyer, Gary D. Nissenbaum, December 2007

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