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RLUIPA: The quiet Religious Freedom law that is reshaping land use and zoning in America

In the past few blogs, I have been writing about RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and how this law applies to all religious assemblies in land use disputes.  You may be wondering how the law might apply to an actual case.

The Atlantic Magazine profiled the case of North Jersey Vineyard v. City of South Hackensack, New Jersey,  a case that I litigated where the Court applied the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), to an land use decision of a local community that barred a church from using a building it purchased in an area zoned for religious use, that ultimately resulted in a difficult years long lawsuit. The case settled, the church is now thriving and the story is one of that offers hope to churches, mosque and temples involved in religious zoning disputes.

In a comment to the story, Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, explained:

I could share dozens of horror stories of how community churches, usually small ones with bi-vocational pastors across America are consistently zoned out of towns and cities, including the first 13 years of Saddleback church, when we had to keep moving and we rented 72 different locations (yes 72) as the congregation grew because zoning laws prevented us from buying a permanent location in any of the 5 planned communities in the Saddleback Valley of Orange County, California, as we grew from one family to thousands. At one point, we had to hold 5 services in an OPEN TENT on bare land for 3 years to hold the over 10,000 attending each week for 3 years until we finally got approval for a building. We did not feel racial bias against our congregation’s ethnic diversity (Saddleback members speak 67 languages, and there’s no majority block in our fellowship) but we DID encounter 13 years of hostile city zoning prejudice before we finally bought a bare piece of land OUTSIDE the city limits at that time. We gave up on locating inside the city, but now 20 years later the city surrounds us. Then, when we opened our free food pantry, health clinic, free legal aid, tutoring, English as a second language, and dozens of other community services on our property to serve the poor, we had to fight all kinds of restrictions again, even though the local hospitals told us they were “thrilled” that we were able to relieve some of their Emergency Room overload.

Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church.

RLUIPA has shaped planning and zoning as it has allowed mosques, synagogues and churches to challenge permit denials that were grounded in religious animus or are otherwise unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.

If your Church, or religious organization, has a similar zoning issue, please contact Daniel Dalton or a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you in defending your rights under RLUIPA.

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