Federal Judge Rules Parts of Church Land-Use Law Unconstitutional

Groups plan to help Elsinore Christian Center appeal zoning case

A California district judge has declared a portion of the law aimed at helping houses of worship overcome land-use disputes unconstitutional.

In a little-noticed ruling filed June 24 in the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California, Judge Stephen V. Wilson said Congress "redefined First Amendment rights" by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.

The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a motion Tuesday asking Wilson to reconsider and withdraw his decision.

The ruling—in which Wilson called the act "a blunderbuss of a remedy"—came when the Elsinore Christian Center sued the City of Lake Elsinore, Calif., after it was denied a conditional use permit to move into a former grocery store building.

"The result is likely to be, as in this case, that many land use decisions will be invalidated despite being legitimately motivated and generic in effect, simply because the aggrieved landowner is a religious actor," Wilson wrote.

The case marks the first time that this law—the basis for dozens of land-use suits currently in the courts across the nation—has been struck down by a federal judge, legal experts say.

Under RLUIPA, governments must apply the least restrictive measures against religious groups, or show that zoning laws or other regulations serve a compelling government interest. It was supported by an unusually wide range of religious groups, from evangelical Christians to Jews and Muslims.

"There are many RLUIPA cases around the country, and this is the first judge to have the courage to say it is unconstitutional, as beyond Congress' power, which it clearly is," said Marci A. Hamilton, a public law professor, in an e-mail response to questions from Religion ...

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