In 1985, the Supreme Court decided a Fifth Amendment takings case called Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City. The Court held that property owners had to exhaust state remedies before they could ask a federal court to decide whether the government had violated their Fifth Amendment rights. Understandably, this exhaustion requirement had a terrible (if not exhausting) effect on the ability of property owners to vindicate their Fifth Amendment rights in federal court.
Unfortunately, even though the Williamson County rule was only adopted to address particular concerns that are inherent in the unique context of takings claims, it was not long before lower federal courts were applying it to other kinds of land use cases—even those involving First Amendment rights and cases brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). While RLUIPA was enacted to give federal courts the authority to provide immediate relief to religious groups burdened by municipal land use regulations, some federal courts wrongly relied upon the Williamson County rule to throw out RLUIPA cases.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court is currently considering whether to overrule Williamson County in the case of Knick v. Scott Township. More importantly for religious land use plaintiffs, the Becket Fund has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to clarify that the Williamson County rule, even if it is reaffirmed, does not apply to RLUIPA cases. In its excellent brief, the Becket Fund highlights how the Williamson County rule has been used to undermine and harm religious groups despite Congress’s clear intent to provide them heightened protection in the land use context and an immediate forum in federal court.
We will be watching the Knick case closely. Oral argument in Knick occurred on October 3, 2018, and we will provide an update as soon as a decision comes down.