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 law. (In 2005, it unanimously upheld it as constitutional.)
RLUIPA could be sapped of its strength if the Court rules that prisoners cannot sue for damages and that states can invoke sovereign immunity, the National Association of Evangelicals warned in an amicus brief.
"If damages are not available to religious institutions in land-use cases under RLUIPA, cities and counties may easily manipulate the legal system to financially eliminate religious institutions from the city or county limits," wrote Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute.
Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, said that while he cannot point to growth in prisoners' religious devotion since RLUIPA, the law gives ministries greater access to evangelism and discipleship. "It gives us a seat at the table to discuss ways to meet the legitimate security concerns without interfering with religious practices.
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Previous Articles about RLUIPA from Christianity Today and its sister publications include:
You Be The Judge: The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act | What can we do if a zoning board refuses the church a permit to expand its facilities? (Your Church, April 15, 2009)
How a Land Use Act Protected One Church | What you need to know about RLUIPA. (Your Church, February 28, 2008)
Federal Judge Rules Parts of Church Land-Use Law Unconstitutional | Groups plan to help Elsinore Christian Center appeal zoning case (July 1, 2003)
Churches vs. Homeowners | Legal experts assess last week's appeals court decision that houses of worship may be incompatible with a place of quiet seclusion. (October 1, 2002)
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