According to Census Bureau Data and a recent article by Sam Ro of Axios Markets, there has been a drastic decline in the construction of new houses of worship over the last twenty years. Whereas Americans invested nearly $9 billion dollars in constructing houses of worship in 2003, that number has dropped all the way down to $3-4 billion dollars in the last few years. What makes this twenty-year decline even more remarkable is that construction in other areas has substantially increased over the same period. Construction spending has greatly increased for places of amusement, recreation facilities, schools, and offices.
So why are Americans not building houses of worship? As Sam Ro’s article notes, many religious groups have found alternative locations in which to meet. Rather than go through the cost and expense of building a new house of worship, many congregations are content to meet in unconventional spaces. At Dalton & Tomich, we have worked with religious groups that meet in a variety of different spaces—from schools and libraries to former laundromats and vacant industrial buildings. While congregations may feel completely comfortable meeting in these spaces, significant problems arise when their use is prohibited or restricted by local zoning or land use regulations. In fact, the increasingly restrictive nature of zoning in America, coupled with the increasing costs of obtaining zoning approvals, may be one of the most under-reported causes of the decline in the number of houses of worship being constructed each year.
Unfortunately, many congregations pay little-to-no mind as to whether their use of an unconventional space requires prior zoning approval or permitting. Rather than bring in a competent attorney on the front end to help do their due diligence, religious groups often call us only after they receive a cease-and-desist order from their local government. While we are able to help many such groups overcome the zoning and land use hurdles, sometimes it is too late. And when religious groups lose the building or space in which they are meeting, the burden on the congregation and leadership is substantial.
As religious groups continue to rethink how and where they worship, it is critical that they familiarize themselves not only with their local land use regulations but also a federal law that was enacted specifically to ensure that houses of worship are not discriminated against in land use and zoning. This federal law is called the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and we have been able to use it to help many religious groups all across the country establish their houses of worship. Unfortunately, far too many religious groups (and even their attorneys) know little-to-nothing about this law and suffer as a result.
It is our hope that Americans will reverse the trend and begin to invest more in establishing new houses of worship. We stand ready to assist them with our knowledge and experience navigating land use regulations and enforcing the strong provisions of RLUIPA. We have literally written the book on RLUIPA.
You can learn more about RLUIPA by visiting our website, then contact one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to work with you through the land development and litigation process with respect to a RLUIPA claim.