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Understanding RLUIPA – the Remedies

Congress provided two remedies for religious organizations that prevail in religious lands use disputes under RLUIPA. The first is an award of attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988. The second is injunctive relief and monetary damages within RLUIPA. 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-5(4)(a). RLUIPA’s provision authorizing a cause of action states: A person may assert a violation of this chapter as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government.

While virtually no court disputes that “appropriate relief” allows for injunctive and declaratory relief, there remains a question within some Courts concerning whether the phrase also encompasses a right to monetary relief. As one court put it mildly, “there is a division of authority” on whether “appropriate relief” encompasses monetary damages. Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1270 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Madison v. Virginia, 474 F.3d 118, 130 (4th Cir. 2006). The federal district courts are currently split: some courts conclude that RLUIPA does not encompass money damages, while others have found the opposite, concluding that the phrase “appropriate relief” is sufficiently broad to include some forms of monetary relief. Meanwhile, a third category of interpretation has developed in some district courts, which have assumed monetary relief is available without resolving the disputed definition of “appropriate relief.” Generally speaking, the conflict arises for claims brought under the “institutionalized persons” prong of the act.

The text, context, and legislative history of the Act all indicate that “appropriate relief” includes, among other things, relief in the form of money damages, and such a reading of the statute is in accord with Congress’ intent when it originally drafted the statute. The conflict among district courts regarding the availability of money damages stems from the issues inherently involved in claimants suing governmental officials in their individual capacities – a sphere which federal courts appear to be hesitant to let claimants near, let alone expand. And in cases indicating that damages do not “appear” to be available at all under RLUIPA, there is an additional overlay of immunities from damages under the Eleventh Amendment and the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act. Even though the prisoner cases noted that the RLUIPA statute permits cases against a governmental entity and individual officers in their official capacities, the court decided that it did not appear that the statute permitted a claim for damages, but rather for declaratory and injunctive relief.

Remedies, along with defining substantial burden, will be an issue rising to the Supreme Court in future years.

Regards, Dan

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