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This Religious-Freedom Fight is Remaking America: RLUIPA in the Spotlight

There are churches all across America that have closed their doors or given up on their missions when they didn’t have to. And in many cases they did it just because they weren’t aware of a federal law that guaranteed their right to do exactly what they needed to do for their congregants.

That law is called RLUIPA and it garnered a sliver of the national spotlight recently when The Atlantic magazine published the story of North Jersey Vineyard Church’s religious land use fight against South Hackensack, New Jersey. It’s a must-read article for any religious leader who is or soon could be looking to buy, lease or rent property for worship assembly.

I litigated that case on behalf of Pastor Phil Chorlian’s church and had the distinct pleasure of sharing my expertise with Emma Green from The Atlantic for her wonderful story. Emma brought to the forefront the immense impact the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is having across the country and the powerful tool it can be to level the playing field for houses of worship of all denominations in planning, land use and zoning cases. This is a topic that I have been passionate about for many years, including writing a book about RLUIPA, so I couldn’t be happier to see the law showcased in this manner.

As noted in a blog published earlier this year, after years of searching for a home, North Jersey Vineyard Church learned of a building in South Hackensack that had been vacant since 2003. The property fit the church’s needs perfectly, but the township denied its site plan and the church was forced to file suit against the township. The suit alleged a variety of claims under RLUIPA, including a facial challenge to the township’s zoning code.

We settled that case with assurance from the township that the church could use the property and the building, so North Jersey Vineyard purchased it at a cost of $3 million. But after the purchase, the township imposed additional zoning burdens including parking requirements that were more onerous than those on any other use permitted in the district. The township then denied site plan approval a second time and the church had to file a second suit, alleging additional RLUIPA violations.

After a year of litigation, the township approached the church about settlement and came to a resolution that ultimately allowed North Jersey Vineyard to build a 717-seat sanctuary and required the township to pay damages and attorney fees.

In her remarkable article, Emma Green took a deep and personal look into the federal RLUIPA law and its role in protecting houses of worship from unnecessary local zoning restrictions. Those inappropriate and illegal municipal actions could be motivated by anything from religious prejudice to a desire to increase municipal tax revenues. The law requires local governments to demonstrate a compelling reason for rejecting building requests, imposes an equal treatment of religious and secular assembly uses, and precludes local governments from excluding religious uses from their municipalities.

The impact of RLUIPA has shaped planning and zoning across the country. It has allowed churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious entities to challenge permit denials that were grounded in religious animus or included unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. Thank you, Emma, and The Atlantic, for publishing this important story.

If your church, mosque, synagogue, temple or other religious organization faces planning, land use or zoning-related challenges preventing you from achieving your noble mission, please contact me or one of my Dalton & Tomich, PLC colleagues by email or call 313.859.6000. We would be happy to discuss how we can assist in defending your rights under RLUIPA.

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Read the full text of the article from The Atlantic here.

It’s worth noting that North Jersey Vineyard Church is only one of many churches and other houses of worship that have faced planning and zoning-related challenges preventing their growth. Another case referenced in the article is that of the American Islamic Community Center mosque in Sterling Heights, Michigan. You can read about a number of others on our RLUIPA Cases page.

And in a comment to the story, Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, shared his own experience and insight:

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.

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