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Five Laws For Which Americans Can Be Thankful

  1. Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

Congress enacted RLUIPA in 2000 based on evidence of widespread discrimination against religious assemblies and institutions in the zoning and land use context. Many religious groups were struggling to find a place to meet. Others were struggling with burdensome restrictions on their religious activities and efforts to serve their community. In short, zoning and land use regulations had become major impediments to religious exercise in America. RLUIPA was meant to serve as a super statute and provide religious groups even greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the Constitution. Under RLUIPA, municipalities must treat religious assemblies and institutions on equal terms with their non-religious counterparts. Moreover, RLUIPA made it possible for religious groups to sue municipalities and challenge land use regulations which substantially burden or unreasonably limit religious exercise.

Since 2000, millions of Americans have benefited from RLUIPA. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have used RLUIPA to obtain zoning approvals they would not otherwise have received. Other religious institutions like religious schools, homeless shelters, and pregnancy care centers have used RLUIPA to level the playing field and protect themselves from discriminatory treatment. We have won numerous RLUIPA lawsuits all across the country—ensuring our clients receive equal treatment and are free to advances their religious missions without unlawful government interference. And as a result, the homeless have more shelters, the hungry have access to more food, the faith communities have more places to worship, and our communities are better off.

Successful RLUIPA suits have also led to million dollar damage awards and the recovery of millions of dollars of attorneys’ fees as well.

  1. Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

RFRA is RLUIPA’s sister statute. It provides similar protections and is not limited to the land use and institutionalized persons contexts. However, it only applies against the Federal Government. Most notably, RFRA was used to protect the right of a small religious sect to drink a particular sacramental tea that contains a hallucinogen prohibited by the Federal Government, Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006) and to protect a Christian business from being forced to act contrary to its religious beliefs. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682 (2014).

  1. State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts

Because the federal RFRA only applies against the Federal Government, many states have enacted their own RFRA’s. To date, twenty-one different states have enacted a RFRA to ensure that the religious freedom of their citizens cannot be infringed without a compelling governmental interest. State RFRA’s have been used to protect the religious exercise of individuals and religious institutions alike from state and local regulations.

  1. State Right of Conscience Acts.

Some states have enacted specific laws to protect the right to act in accordance with one’s religious beliefs and conscience in certain contexts. For example, Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act has long been the gold standard when it comes to protecting health care professionals’ right of conscience. Illinois doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals enjoy a statutory right to refuse as a matter of conscience to participate in the provision of health care services they find immoral. Under the Conscience Act, it is unlawful for any public or private employer to discriminate against any health care employee in any manner because of the employee’s conscientious refusal to participate in any way in any particular form of health care service. Moreover, the Conscience Act provides health care workers the ability to file suit against their employers and recover triple their actual damages, including pain and suffering, in the event they have been discriminated against. Even when there are no actual damages, the statute provides for a minimum recovery of $2,500 for each violation and the right to recover attorneys’ fees and costs.

  1. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution

When most Americans think about religious freedom, they think about the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. What most Americans do not know is that their rights under the Free Exercise Clause were substantially weakened by a United States Supreme Court decision in 1990 called Employment Division v. Smith. In Smith, the Supreme Court held that a neutral law of general applicability which burdens religious exercise does need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest. Smith so weakened free exercise rights that Congress decided to enact RFRA and RLUIPA in order to restore them in particular contexts.

But Americans can be thankful that the Supreme Court is revisiting Smith in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In Fulton, the question is:  “Does the government violate the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs?” How the Supreme Court answers this question will have tremendous implications far beyond just the foster care system. If the Supreme Court uses Fulton to overrule or revise the Smith standard, the originally intended protections of the Free Exercise Clause may be restored.

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