RLUIPA is a federal statute that was passed in 2000 to provide stronger protection for religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts. (Click here for the full text of the law.) RLUIPA has since been asserted in dozens of lawsuits, prompting widespread media coverage and scholarly attention. The purpose of this website is to track the latest developments under the Act in all three arenas: in the courts of law, the court of public opinion, and the academy.
Jail agrees to stop censoring the Bible
Under pressure from civil rights organizations, Rappahannock Regional Jail officials stated they would stop censoring religious material in letters to inmates. The change in policy comes after The Becket Fund and other civil rights organizations protested the censorship of correspondence from a Christian mother to her son. One 3- page letter she sent was censored down to nothing but the salutation, first paragraph, and “Love, Mom.”
“The Bible isn’t pornography and shouldn’t be treated like it,” said Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which signed the letter. “Wouldn’t it be great if every level of government – local, state, and federal – stopped acting as if the Bible and other religious books are dangerous contraband and instead acknowledged faith’s role in our society?”
Prison authorities can legitimately censor writings that affect prison security, but the courts have ruled that inmates must be given access to religious materials. The letter that prompted today’s change stated that officials at Rappahannock were violating the First Amendment and federal civil rights laws, in particular the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000. Section 3 of the Act provides that no government may arbitrarily prohibit a prisoner from engaging in religious worship or communication.
“Every prison official in the country should make themselves familiar with the First Amendment and the prisoner religious freedoms granted under RLUIPA,” added Rassbach.
For more information or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys email Kristina Arriaga, Communications Director, at email@example.com, call 703.582.8962 or contact Montserrat Alvarado, Assistant Communications Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Based in Washington, D.C., The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonpartisan, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.
Becket Fund attorneys are the nation’s leading experts on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which codifies constitutional principles derived from the First and Fourteenth Amendments and enjoys broad bipartisan support. In addition to conducting extensive litigation under the Act, they have written two law review articles on it, and they maintain a website dedicated to the Act, www.rluipa.org.
Click here for a copy of the letter to Rappahannock Regional Jail.
Click here for a copy of the response from Rappahannock Regional Jail.
Click here to watch a Christian Broadcast News TV interview with Eric Rassbach on this case.
"Monks File Suit Against City to Worship at Home," Virginian-Pilot
Roman Storzer of Storzer and Greene has brought another RLUIPA case, this time on behalf of Buddhist monks in Virginia Beach, VA. As described in the The Virginian-Pilot article, the monks claim that the city council violated RLUIPA and the First Amendment:
The City Council o n Aug. 26 voted to deny the monks' request for a two-year extension to hold Sunday services at their house on West Neck Road.
Some neighbors had complained that the services drew too much traffic and was inappropriate for a primarily residential and farming community.
Deputy City Attorney Bill Macali said he hasn't seen the suit but maintained that the council made its decision based on land-use issues, not religion.
"The City Council did not take into account that this was a Buddhist temple," Macali said.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits localities from adopting zoning that "imposes a substantial burden" on people's ability to practice their religion unless there is a compelling governmental reason. The law also requires that religious and non religious institutions be treated the same.
[The monks' lawyer] said the council failed to provide a compelling reason to deny the permit.
Click here for the full story.
Save the Church, Kill the Congregation?
Yesterday, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board HPRB voted 7-0 to impose landmark status on an unwilling Third Church of Christ, Scientist, located in downtown Washington DC. The 36-year old crumbling structure was designed in the "brutalist" school of architecture which is notorious for its stark and unwelcoming designs. The congregation seeks to demolish the building as it impedes the current congregation's religious needs and mission. But the HPRB's vote is designed to freeze the structure in perpetuity and ironically, save the church on the outside (the building) by sacrificing the church on the inside (the worshippers).
The Becket Fund submitted a legal opinion letter to the HPRB informing it that it risks violating federal and constitutional law if it uses landmarking laws to impose a substantial burden on the congregation's religious expression. The letter focuses on the applicability of two federal laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which applies to instrumentalities of the District, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which applies to landmarking decisions specifically. See www.rluipa.com.
The Washington Post has covered this story with two columns linked below,
State vs. Church: March of the Preservation Police
Church Gets Landmark Status Over Congregation's Objections
Department of Justice Intervenes in NJ Albanian Mosque Case
On July 25, New Jersey federal district judge Peter Sheridan heard argument on the Township of Wayne’s motion for summary judgment in the RLUIPA lawsuit brought by the Albanian Associated Fund, a Paterson, N.J. mosque, against the Township. In 2001, the mosque bought land in Wayne and since then has been trying to build a mosque to house its congregation on the site. The Township repeatedly delayed the mosque’s application for a conditional use permit, and finally moved to seize the mosque’s property using eminent domain.
In another development, the United States Department of Justice has intervened on behalf of the mosque, filing an amicus brief in opposition to Wayne’s motion for summary judgment.
More information and media account available here.
Victory for Great Lakes Society, Becket Fund in RLUIPA case
The Circuit Court for Ottawa County Michigan ruled that Georgetown Charter Township illegally denied the Great Lakes Society (“GLS”) its right to build a house of worship for the chemically sensitive and disabled. The ruling, signed by Circuit Judge Calvin L. Bosman, found that the Township violated the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) when it denied GLS’ permit application because the building proposal did not meet the Township’s arbitrary notions of what constitutes a church. GLS is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm that has developed a reputation as the nation’s premiere defenders of RLUIPA, and by Roman P. Storzer of the law firm Storzer & Greene, which specializes in the representation of religious institutions.
GLS first applied for a special-use permit to build a house of worship on its land on April 17, 2002 and all initial signs pointed towards a smooth approval. GLS’ plans for the church included a sanctuary for group worship, prayer and meditation rooms, restrooms, a library, a garage, a health ministry and other features common to churches. But, on May 8 of that year, the Township unexpectedly informed GLS that “the proposal as submitted for this site is not, in fact, a church for purposes of the Georgetown Township Zoning Ordinance.”
Judge Bosman saw that decision for what it was; a flat prohibition on group worship for GLS members, who, because of their chemical sensitivity, quite literally have nowhere else to go. According to the court, the Zoning Board’s action, “effectively prevents the members of GLS from worshipping at all. It would be difficult to conceive of a burden on religious exercise more substantial than this.”
Members of GLS suffer from extreme sensitivity to chemicals found in standard building construction and in other aspects of modern life; when exposed to these chemicals, they can suffer from nausea, migraines, heart irregularities, respiratory difficulties, and other debilitating conditions.
“RLUIPA was created precisely to deal with the national epidemic of zoning boards putting arbitrary decision making ahead of the rights of citizens to worship freely on their own land,” said Kevin J. Hasson, President of the Becket Fund. RLUIPA was passed with unanimous consent in Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. “The central question of this case was ‘Who decides what a church is -- believers or bureaucrats?’ This time the believers won, and so did the constitution.”
This case only builds on the Michigan's unfortunate reputation as a hotbed of activity under RLUIPA's land-use provisions. The first victory under RLUIPA came by favorable settlement in the case of Haven Shores Community Church v. City of Grand Haven, brought by the Becket Fund. The Becket Fund is currently awaiting a decision from the Sixth Circuit in its representation of Okemos Christian Center in their RLUIPA case against Meridian Charter Township, MI. The Becket Fund is also representing Greater Bible Way Temple in their case against Jackson, MI and in their appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of an adverse Michigan Supreme Court ruling. These decisions could create a split on important RLUIPA issues between state and federal appellate courts covering the same jurisdiction.
Church Turns to Becket Fund for Supreme Court Appeal
On Friday, July 20, The Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson, Michigan retained the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to represent them in their appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of a Michigan Supreme Court opinion from June that prevented the Church from building lower-income housing designed to help the homeless and needy. The Church had sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), a law that protects against religious discrimination and unnecessary burdens on religious exercise imposed by zoning boards. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has developed a reputation as a leader in the defense of RLUIPA, which was passed with unanimous consent by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000.
The June ruling overturned two lower court decisions, which had found in favor of the Church. While the Court ruled, among other things, that RLUIPA does not protect religiously-motivated service activities like those involved in this case, there is an extensive collection of rulings from Circuit Courts of Appeals around the country that have found otherwise. Despite this latest decision, the Church remains resolved to continue their charitable work. The Becket Fund will ask the Supreme Court of the United States to reconsider the decision.
“Greater Bible Way’s ministry is a great benefit to the community of Jackson, not just spiritually but also through their many charitable programs,” said Kevin J. Hasson, President of the Becket Fund. “The ministry’s work with the homeless and needy is a part of their religious exercise and for a handful of judges to decide that it isn’t is outrageous.”
“With all due respect, we think the Michigan Supreme Court got it wrong, and is out of step with other courts in this country,” continued Hasson. “We very much hope the Supreme Court of the United States takes the case to clean up the confusion.”
“We retained the services of the Becket Fund after they were recommended to us by several legal organizations because of their expertise and outstanding track record in RLUIPA cases,” said Bishop Ira Combs, Jr. of Greater Bible Way Temple. “We have the greatest confidence in the Becket Fund to give us the best chance to continue our important work for our community.”
The Becket Fund also represents Okemos Christian Center in their RLUIPA case against Meridian Charter Township, MI. A decision in that case is currently pending at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rabbinical College Sues Pomona, NY Officials For Permission to Build College
The Congregational Rabbinical College of Tartikov has filed a suit against government officials of Pomona, New York, for refusing to allow the construction of a 30 acre Rabbinical College on the 100 acre property owned by the Congregation. Included in the plans for the new college are "places of worship, religious educational facilities, religious courts, libraries of Jewish texts and accessory student housing." The complaint (which can be read in full here) alleges that refusal of permission is "the direct result of fierce anti-Hasidic opposition in the local community."
The Associated Press covered the case here.
(via Religion Clause)
AZ Church May Build School After Compromise with Scottsdale City Council
In 2005, the Scottdale City Council refused to permit the SonRise Community Church to build a pre-K-8 religious school on property adjacent to the church. The church responded by filing a lawsuit under RLUIPA in November, 2005. On May 22, 2007, the council reversed that decision, granting the permit and settling the lawsuit.
Neighbors had complained that allowing the church to build on that site, which was zoned for single family homes, would increase traffic and reduce property values. However, the church argued that denying the permit was "an abridgement of the church’s rights to free speech, religion, assembly and due process."
Read more in the East Valley Tribune, here.
Read Howard Friedman's summary at Religion Clause here.