Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, often referred to by its acronym RLUIPA (ruh-loopa). In just over two decades, this little-known federal law has protected thousands of religious institutions across the country from unequal and burdensome zoning and land use regulations.
Over the years, it has been our privilege at Dalton & Tomich to have helped a wide variety of religious organizations better understand their rights under RLUIPA and overcome the zoning hurdles they face. We have been honored to help churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, religious schools, homeless shelters, and many other religious ministries navigate the increasingly complex world of zoning and land use regulation. As the cases below make plain, many of our clients would have been shut down or denied a place to worship and serve their communities if it were not for RLUIPA.
To celebrate RLUIPA’s 22nd anniversary, we wanted to highlight 22 of our top religious land uses cases (in no particular order):
- Academy of Our Lady of Peace v. City of San Diego (2012). The City of San Diego denied this Catholic college preparatory school’s plan to modernize its campus. After four years of litigation, we secured our client’s right to move forward with its plan and a jury verdict under RLUIPA for over $1,000,000.
- Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County v. Borough of Litchfield, CT (2019). The Litchfield Historic District Commission denied the Chabad’s plans to build a synagogue at an historic location. The Court ruled for the Chabad under RLUIPA and awarded the Chabad over $700,000 in attorney’s fees.
- American Islamic Community Center v. Sterling Heights, MI (2016). In what was a major win for the Muslim community in Detroit, Dalton & Tomich helped the American Islamic Community Center overcome a zoning denial for its proposed mosque by filing suit under RLUIPA. Sterling Heights ultimately agreed to settle the case, allow the mosque to be built, and pay damages and attorney’s fees.
- Shawnee Mission v. Lenexa, KS (2020). Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church has a long history of ministering to the poorest and most vulnerable populations of Lenexa, Kansas. They sought to use their building as a shelter for those seeking to escape the bitter cold of winter. After the City sought to close the homeless ministry, we intervened and filed suit under RLUIPA. The City ultimately agreed to allow the Church to continue its homeless ministry—allowing up to 30 adults to find shelter in the Church.
- City Walk – Urban Mission v. Wakulla County, FL (2020). The County sought to shut down City Walk’s transition home ministry and force its residents out onto the street. We filed suit under RLUIPA to protect the ministry and the men who sought City Walk’s help. After securing a federal court order protecting the ministry, we settled with the case in a way that protected the ministry and secured $160,000 from the County.
- Lighthouse Community Church v. Southfield, MI (2007). An historic African American congregation had outgrown its existing building and found a new location. The City opposed the Church’s use of the new location and denied the church the parking variance it needed to continue. We filed suit under RLUIPA, and on the eve of trial, the City agreed to settle the case and allow the Church to move forward.
- Pass-a-grille Beach Community Church v. City of St. Pete Beach, FL (2021). The City tried to bar the church from allowing the public to park in its parking lot, where the Church’s youth group would evangelize, pray with, and seek donations from those who parked in the lot for free. We filed suit under RLUIPA and obtained a court order protecting the Church’s use of its parking lot and over $250,000 to compensate the Church for its damages and attorney’s fees.
- Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham, IL (2018). This small church converted its pastor’s home into a sanctuary. After the City sued to shut the church down, we used RLUIPA to secure the Church’s right to worship and $225,000 from the City in settlement. This case also my helpful precedent in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
- A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center v. City of Raleigh (2019). The pregnancy resource center found a new location that allowed them to help more women with unplanned pregnancy. Even though the center’s rezoning request was consistent with City’s future land use map, the City manufactured a reason to deny the center’s application. After suit was filed under RLUIPA, we helped the center settle the case with the City and secure its new location.
- Hope Rising Church v. Penn Hills, PA (2016). The Church signed a three-year lease for a warehouse to use for religious services. Four months after the Church obtained an occupancy permit, the City changed its position and ordered the church to cease worship services. We used RLUIPA to obtain an injunction protecting the Church’s right to worship. Ultimately, Penn Hills agreed to allow the Church to use the warehouse as a house of worship as well as pay monetary damages and the Church’s attorney fees.
- Summit Church v. City of Hackensack, N.J. (2010). The Church sought to renovate its existing space and add approximately 2,000 square feet onto its sanctuary. Through both federal court litigation and numerous appearances before the local Zoning Board of Adjustments, we were able to use RLUIPA to help the Church move forward with its expansion plans.
- West Valley Christian Center v. Los Angeles, CA (2018). The Church needed to find a new place to worship but could not secure the local City Council member’s support for any of the 26 different locations it had found. Ultimately, the Church bought property from a supporter of the City Council member and sought zoning approval. But the City denied the Church the approvals it needed. We filed suit under RLUIPA and ultimately reached a settlement that allowed the Church to proceed at the property.
- Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. Ignace, MI (2019). The City sought to keep the Church from meeting at a location where the City’s zoning code freely allowed assembly halls, townhalls and theaters. We filed suit under RLUIPA and obtained a quick result protecting the Church’s right to equal treatment and securing $60,000 to settle the Church’s claims to damages and attorney’s fees. The Department of Justice also intervened in the suit in support of the Church’s right to equal treatment.
- Summit Church v. Randolph County, WV (2016). The Church had been meeting in a theater, which it ultimately bought. The County opposed the Church’s use of the theater. After the Church and theater owner filed suit, the Court ruled in favor of the Church under RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision and protected the Church’s right to continue meeting in the theater.
- Mt. Zion Ministries Church v. Whitestown, NY (2020). The Church acquired a large property at which it desired to build a new sanctuary. The town’s zoning code allowed non-religious assembly uses on the property but not religious assemblies. Within weeks of filing suit, the town quickly agreed to a consent order protecting the Church’s right to equal treatment under RLUIPA.
- Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville Beach (2013). The City denied a small Anglican congregation the approval it needed to build a church on one of the last remaining vacant properties in the City. After a bench trial, the Court ruled that the City had violated RLUIPA by treating the Church unequally.
- Church at Jackson v. Hinds County, MS (2022) The County denied the Church the ability to worship on its six-acre property even though several nonreligious assembly uses were permitted at the location. We sued under RLUIPA and secured zoning approval, a building permit, over $140,000 in damages and attorney’s fees from the County.
- The Cross Church v. City of Carlinville, IL (2009). The Church acquired a former Wal-Mart store to could accommodate the Church’s growing congregation. The City did everything it could to stop the Church from using building because it did not want to lose the tax revenue. After the Church filed suit under RLUIPA to protect its right to equal treatment and remove the burden on the congregation, the City ultimately settled. The Church was allowed to proceed at its new location and received money from the City to cover its attorney’s fees and damages.
- Salvation Temple Church v. City of Hazel Park (2010). The Church acquired a former banquet facility. The City’s zoning code permitted assembly halls at the property but did not permit religious assembly uses. After we filed suit under RLUIPA, the City quickly agreed to a court order that allowed the Church to use the property for its worship services.
- North Jersey Vineyard Church v. City of Hackensack, NJ (2017). The Church outgrew its existing facility and found a vacant 80,000 square foot building that could accommodate the Church’s growing congregation. The City denied the Church zoning approval based on “negative traffic issues.” After we filed suit under RLUIPA, we secured a settlement for the Church that allowed it to open a 717-seat sanctuary at the property and recovered the Church’s attorney fees.
- Celebration Community Church v. City of Muskegon, MI (2015). The Church had been meeting in a high school gym and sought to move to a property that had formerly served as an automobile dealership. The City denied the Church zoning approval citing a potential loss of property tax revenue. After we filed suit under RLUIPA, the City agreed to mediate the case and ultimately agreed to allow the Church at the property, as well as pay an amount for the Church’s damages and attorney’s fees.
- Lighthouse Rescue Mission v. City of Hattiesburg, MS (2013). Lighthouse Rescue Mission operated a Christian-based residential addiction treatment facility for single mothers and their children. They purchased a former elementary school and began to renovate it to use as a worship facility and overnight shelter. The City refused to allow overnight stays, and Lighthouse was forced to sue to secure its right to serve the women and their children. With the help of RLUIPA, we were able to reach a settlement agreement with the City under which Lighthouse was about to provide long-term housing to single mothers and their children. Today, Lighthouse is still providing a safe place to live and recover for mothers and their children.
As these cases and many more show, RLUIPA is one of the most significant religious liberty laws Congress has ever passed. RLUIPA has made it possible for people of various faiths to secure places of worship, open religious schools, care for the homeless, and serve their communities in a variety of ways.
If your religious assembly or institution is experiencing difficulty obtaining land use or zoning approvals, please contact the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich.