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Does RLUIPA Protect Churches Against Eminent Domain Proceedings?

In recent years, several states have announced plans to begin constructing high-speed railway systems within their borders in an effort to create more efficient means of travel. These plans have begun to cause concern for private landowners who worry the states may resort to condemning their property to acquire the land needed to build the new railways.

An interesting question that will likely arise in these states relates to whether the government has the legal authority to condemn private property belonging to religious institutions. At play are two potentially conflicting legal concepts: the government’s Fifth Amendment right to take private property for public use, and the heightened protection given to religious entities’ land use rights under RLUIPA.

Light Rail Projects and the Use of Eminent Domain

     Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government has the power to acquire privately owned property for a public use. This power, known as eminent domain, allows the government to condemn real property that is owned by private parties and transfer title to the property to the government. In exchange, the government must pay “just compensation” to the private owner.

In the last few years, several states have announced plans to construct high-speed railways, including California and Minnesota. California officials plan to construct a high-speed railway that would link Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California. Minnesota officials also plan to construct a high-speed railway to connect the Twin Cities and Rochester.

Of course, these states will need property on which to lay the tracks for the rail systems. This has raised concerns from private landowners in both California and Minnesota over the possibility of the government using eminent domain to take their land to build the railways.

These concerns are not merely hypothetical. As of January 2016, California’s State Public Works has adopted at least 305 resolutions that declare a need to use eminent domain to acquire approximately 1,100 acres in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties alone. Minnesota citizens have also expressed significant concern about their properties being taken via eminent domain in order to construct the proposed railway.

One argument that religious institutions facing eminent domain proceedings may raise is that RLUIPA protects them against the government using eminent domain to restrict their use of land for religious purposes.

Using RLUIPA to Defend against Eminent Domain

    RLUIPA was enacted in order to prohibit the government from implementing a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. The term “land use regulation” is defined as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land….” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc­5(5). The plain language of RLUIPA does not explicitly cite eminent domain as a land use regulation, which has caused fear among some religious organizations that RLUIPA does not protect against eminent domain proceedings.

However, several federal cases have suggested that eminent domain proceedings may fall within the scope of RLUIPA. One such case out of the Central District of California is Cottonwood Christian Center v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, 218 F. Supp. 2d 1203 (C.D. Cal. 2002). In that case, the City of Cypress sought to use its eminent domain power to take Cottonwood’s property and sell it to Costco so it could construct a warehouse store. The court explicitly rejected the City’s argument that eminent domain is not a “land use regulation” under RLUIPA, and instead emphasized how “the Redevelopment Agency’s authority to exercise eminent domain to contravene blight…is based on a zoning system developed by the City.” Id. at 1222 n.9.

Another case from the Northern District of Illinois advocated for a broad reading of the Cottonwood decision related to eminent domain. In St. John’s United Church of Christ v. City of Chicago, 401 F. Supp. 2d 887 (N.D. Ill. 2005), the Court noted that Cottonwood “stands for the proposition that all exercises of eminent domain authority are subject to RLUIPA.” Id. at 899-900. Ultimately, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s eminent domain argument, but still noted that Cottonwood “can be read to suggest that RLUIPA is applicable to the specific eminent domain actions where the condemnation proceeding is intertwined with other actions by the city involving zoning regulations.” Id. at 900.

So what does this mean for a religious institution facing eminent domain proceedings? At the very least, these decisions provide a basis for a religious organization to argue that RLUIPA protects it from the government’s condemnation efforts via eminent domain. Based on the St. John’s decision, this argument is strengthened when the government’s eminent domain actions are linked with other zoning actions.

If you are a religious institution facing the threat of condemnation or eminent domain proceedings, please contact the experienced legal team at Dalton & Tomich to discuss your matter.

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