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Federal Court Says Stop Work Orders and Other Non-Zoning Processes Are Land Use Regulations Subject to RLUIPA

As its name suggests, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc et seq., governs how religious land uses may be regulated. Therefore, a threshold question for every type of claim under RLUIPA is whether a land use regulation is even involved. If the problem or conflict does not stem from the implementation or imposition of a land use regulation, then RLUIPA’s various protections do not apply. So the question of what is and is not a “land use regulation” is an important one which courts have had to continue to resolve in cases across the country.

Thankfully, Congress defined “land use regulation” under RLUIPA 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 (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.”

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Congress further provided that RLUIPA’s terms are to be “construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of [the] Act and the Constitution.”42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-3(g).

Recently, a federal court in Tennessee did just that in  Layman Lessons Church v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville/ Davidson County, (MD TN, April 18, 2019). The court construed “land use regulation” broadly to include zoning and non-zoning processes which the government had used to restrict the religious disaster relief efforts of Layman Lessons Church. While Nashville argued that no land use regulation was involved because its Zoning Administrator had granted the Church’s zoning request to use the property, the Church argued that its use was still restricted by the City’s imposition of building code regulations and stop work orders that prevented the Church’s religious and charitable activities. The court held that “where the record supports the inference that a locality disingenuously used its procedures to obstruct and ultimately deny a plaintiff’s religious building, courts decline to insulate the municipality from liability with regard to its decisions on zoning issues simply because it decided them under the rubric of an ostensibly non-zoning process.”

You can read about how other courts have broadly construed the term “land use regulation” in Daniel Dalton’s book “Litigating Religious Land Use Cases.” If a land use regulation is restricting the religious exercise of your religious assembly or institution, please call us to discuss how we might help you.

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