On Sunday April 22, 2012, Metro South Church opened the doors of its new worship facility in Taylor, Michigan for corporate worship for the very first time. The Church secured a vacant building, empty for nearly ten years and formally used as a Sports Authority retail store, in 2010. Leadership worked with the City of Taylor to secure special land use and site plan approval to change the use from commercial to religious use. The City refused implying that it wanted a retail use because a religious use would prove to be a loss of taxable property. Yet through a lengthy process, Metro South Church was able to secure the use approval without litigation.
The professionals of Dalton & Tomich plc are pleased to be able to assist Metro South Church in securing special land use approval. We explained to the City that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) is a civil rights law that protects religious institutions from discriminatory and unduly burdensome land use regulations. We established that after hearings in which Congress found that religious assemblies and institutions were disproportionately affected, and in fact often were actively discriminated against, in local land use decisions, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously in 2000. In considering RLUIPA, Congress found that zoning authorities were frequently placing excessive or unreasonable burdens on the ability of congregations and individuals to exercise their faith with little to no justification and in violation of the Constitution. Congress further found that religious institutions often faced both subtle and overt discrimination in zoning, particularly minority, newer, smaller, or unfamiliar religious groups and denominations.
Congress also found that, as a whole, religious institutions were treated worse than comparable secular institutions by zoning codes and zoning authorities. Congress further found that zoning authorities frequently were placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations and individuals to exercise their faiths without sufficient justification, in violation of the Constitution. As RLUIPA’s Senate sponsors, Senator Hatch and the late Senator Kennedy, said in their joint statement issued upon the bill’s passage: “Zoning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meetings halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. . . . Churches have been denied the right to meet in rented storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters, and skating rinks—in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.”
In the twelve years since its passage, RLUIPA has been applied in a wide variety of contexts and has been the subject of substantial litigation in the courts. It is a complex statute, with five separate provisions that protect religious exercise in different but sometimes overlapping ways. They are:
• Protection against substantial burdens on religious exercise: Section 2(a) of RLUIPA prohibits the implementation of any land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a person or institution except where justified by a “compelling governmental interest” that the government pursues in the least restrictive way possible.
• Protection against unequal treatment for religious assemblies and institutions: Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA provides that religious assemblies and institutions must be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.
• Protection against religious or denominational discrimination: Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA prohibits discrimination “against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”
• Protection against total exclusion of religious assemblies: Section 2(b)(3)(A) of RLUIPA provides that governments must not totally exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.
• Protection against unreasonable limitation of religious assemblies: Section 2(b)(3)(B) of RLUIPA provides that government must not unreasonably limit “religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
With respect to the building in question, we were able to demonstrate that the City zoning ordinances raised serious concerns under RLUIPA. At a minimum, the City zoning ordinance violated the substantial burden provisions of RLUIPA because it limited religious uses to unsuitable locations or restricts it from fulfilling its religious function. The ordinance also violated the “equal terms” provision if it treats even a single non-religious assembly better than it treats comparable religious assemblies. Further, we demonstrated that concerns about loss of tax base or reduction of taxable values have never been deemed compelling interests. Dispute the protestations of the City, once recognizing the issues they faced and the consequences of violating the law, the City ultimately granted the Church special land use and site plan approval.
The Religious Land Use laws allowed the leveling of the playing field for the religious use of Metro South Church. And the professionals of Dalton & Tomich plc stand ready to assist others throughout the United States faced with similar issues.