Two recent court cases are testing the strength of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons

Act (RLUIPA). Passed by Congress in 2000, the law has become a major force for churches in disputes with local officials over zoning, though for prisoners the benefits have been less clear.

"RLUIPA has made a big difference for religious institutions; they have had a lot of victories over the years," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. "Prisoners may have a stronger case for their free-exercise claims than most of us do because of RLUIPA. It doesn't mean prisoners are winning them all, but it has really changed the landscape for them."

Under RLUIPA, the government must avoid setting up measures that restrict religious institutions, or show that measures serve a compelling government interest. Consequently, a Colorado county recently lost its appeal in a zoning disagreement with its largest church.

In 2006, Boulder County denied Rocky Mountain Christian Church's request to double its campus to about 240,000 square feet. In May, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said the county's regulations did not meet RLUIPA standards, and told it to approve the permit and pay the church $1.34 million in legal costs.

"RLUIPA has been around for a while, but it is now starting to flesh out," said Dan Dalton, chairman of the American Bar Association's Religious Land Use section. "This case sets a guideline, something other communities can use to measure limitations."

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on whether prisoners can sue a state or state official under RLUIPA for damages when their religious rights are violated. It will be the second time the Court considers the prisoner section of the ...

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