Minnesota Church Law – Land Use Restrictions
Minnesota Church Law – Land Use Restrictions
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – RLUIPA
The freedom to practice religion in the United States of America without government interference – which is written into our Constitution, and protected by our courts – is one of the unique aspects of the American way of life.
Over the years, Congress has passed a number of laws protecting the religious liberties of Americans, including:
- the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
- the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act, and
- the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (the “RLUIPA”) – 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.
Reasons for Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
In enacting RLUIPA, Congress determined – after hearing testimony that houses of worship were disproportionately affected, and often actively discriminated against, by local religious land use decisions – that Federal legislation was necessary in order to protect religious individuals and institutions from unduly burdensome, unreasonable, or discriminatory zoning and other land use regulations.
Congress also determined:
- that religious institutions were often required to meet different standards than secular places of assembly – such as community centers, fraternal organizations, and movie theaters, and
- that zoning authorities frequently violated the United States Constitution by placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations to exercise their religious faith.
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act Enforcement
The U.S. Attorney General has authority to enforce the provisions of RLUIPA.
Through December 31, 2016, the U.S. Justice Department had:
- opened nearly 100 formal religious land use investigations, and
- filed nearly 20 lawsuits related to RLUIPA’s land use provisions.
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act Private Cause of Action
RLUIPA also created a private cause of action, which allows private individuals to enforce its provisions, independent of the U.S. Justice Department.
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – Religious Land Use Ignorance
Notwithstanding that RLUIPA has been in place for more than 15 years, many municipal, county, and state officials are still unfamiliar with:
- the religious land use provisions of RLUIPA, and
- their respective obligations under the law.
As a result, houses of worship located in certain jurisdictions face unlawful barriers in the zoning and building process.
RLUIPA Protections – Religious Individuals and Institutions
RLUIPA’s religious land use provisions identify a number of protections for places of worship, faith-based social service providers, religious schools, and individuals using land for religious purposes.
Section 2 of RLUIPA is codified at 42 U.S.C § 2000cc.
(i) Substantial Burdens on Religious Exercise
Section 2(a) of RLUIPA bars the enforcement of land use regulations which create a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a person or institution, unless the government can show:
- that it has a “compelling interest” for imposing the regulation, and
- that the government pursues such a compelling interest using the least restrictive means.
The “substantial burden” provision identified in Section 2(a) of the statute applies with respect to religious land use restrictions on
“a person, including a religious assembly or institution.”
While RLUIPA does not define a “compelling interest,” the U.S. Supreme Court has previously identified that compelling interests are “interests of the highest order.”
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 546 (1993).
(ii) Prohibition of Unequal Treatment for Religious Assemblies and Institutions
Section 2(b)(l) of RLUIPA identifies that religious assemblies and institutions must be treated in the same manner as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.
(iii) Prohibition of Religious or Denominational Discrimination
Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA prohibits discrimination
“against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”
(iv) Prohibition of Total Exclusion of Religious Assemblies
Section 2(b)(3)(A) of RLUIPA provides that no government entity may totally exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.
(v) Prohibition of Unreasonable Limitation of Religious Assemblies
Section 2(b)(3)(B) of RLUIPA provides that no government entity may unreasonably limit
“religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
While RLUIPA does not provide a blanket exemption to religious assemblies and related organizations from local zoning laws, it does apply extensively to:
- religious schools, religious camps, religious retreat centers, and religious social service facilities – such as group homes, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, and
- individuals exercising their religion through the use of property for home prayer gatherings or religious studies.
RLUIPA contains a number of safeguards which are designed to prevent discriminatory, unreasonable, or unjustifiably burdensome regulations from hindering religious exercise.
However, before seeking any of the remedies provided by RLUIPA, persons wanting approval for a religious land use must apply for any applicable permits or available zoning relief pursuant to the regular procedures set forth in the relevant ordinances, unless:
- the application process would be futile, or
- the regular procedures are discriminatory, or create an unjustifiable burden.
Minnesota Church Law – Land Use Restrictions – Federal Preemption
While zoning issues are primarily a local matter, federal law takes precedence when zoning law conflicts with federal civil rights laws – such as the Fair Housing Act, or RLUIPA.
RLUIPA Protection Against Total or Unreasonable Exclusion of Religious Assemblies from a Jurisdiction.
Under section 2(b)(3) of RLUIPA, a zoning code may not completely, or unreasonably, limit religious assemblies in a jurisdiction.
Therefore, there would be a violation of RLUIPA when:
- there is no place where houses of worship are permitted to locate in a jurisdiction, or
- the zoning regulations as a whole deprive religious institutions of reasonable opportunities to build or locate in the jurisdiction.
In 2008, a Federal district court in Florida granted summary judgment to a Jewish synagogue with respect to an unreasonable limitations claim, holding that RLUIPA was violated where:
- there was limited availability of property for the location of religious assemblies,
- religious assemblies were subject to inflated costs in order to locate in the City, and
- religious assemblies were subject to more stringent requirements than other similar uses.
Chabad of Nova, Inc. v. City of Cooper City, 575 F. Supp. 2d 1280, 1290 (S.D. Fla. 2008).
U.S. Department of Justice Litigation
Federal courts have made substantial damage awards under RLUIPA.
In 2010, $3.7 million in compensatory damages was awarded to a religious congregation that was prohibited from building a church on real property it had purchased – based on the local County’s discriminatory attitude toward the church.
Reaching Hearts Int’l, Inc. v. Prince George’s Cty., 584 F. Supp. 2d 766 (D. Md. 2008), aff’d, 368 F. App’x 370, 372 (4th Cir. 2010).
United States v. City of Walnut, California – 2010
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action against a California city with respect to its denial of a conditional use permit requested by the Chung Tai Zen Center – which sought approval for the construction of a Buddhist Temple.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that the city had approved similar permits for other places of worship.
Until it denied the Zen Center’s application for a conditional use permit, the city had not denied any application for a similar permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship in over 30 years.
Congregation Etz Chaim v. City of Los Angeles (C.D. Cal.) – 2011
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Federal District Court in support of a small Orthodox Jewish congregation seeking to hold in-home Sabbath services in a residential neighborhood.
The provision of such services in that location was crucial to the congregation in order to be within walking distance of its members.
The District Court agreed that the City’s refusal to allow the congregation to hold services at the home in question violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden, and equal terms provisions – since the City of Los Angeles had previously issued permits with respect to the operation of nonreligious assemblies and institutions – including private schools, athletic clubs, and even a consulate.
Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, MS, 697 F.3d 279 (5th Cir. 2012).
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that a Mississippi municipal ordinance imposing special conditions on churches – including a requirement that churches obtain the prior approval of 60% of neighbors located within a 1,300-foot radius, which was not imposed on nonreligious assemblies – violated Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA – known as the “equal terms” requirement – which mandates that religious assemblies and institutions be treated in the same manner as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice in holding that zoning restrictions violated the equal terms requirement when such restrictions:
- applied to places of worship,
- but not to lodges, union halls, nightclubs, and other assemblies,.
United States v. Rutherford County (M.D. Tenn.) – 2012
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a temporary restraining order under RLUIPA in a Tennessee federal court which allowed the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to move into a mosque it had built on land – when the zoning code then in effect allowed places of worship as a matter of right.
However, notwithstanding the permissible religious uses under the zoning code, a Mississippi state Chancery Court order had prohibited the county from issuing a certificate of occupancy by reason of legal action brought by county residents who had cited fears of terrorism, sharia law, and related concerns in their complaint.
Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, MD – 706 F.3d 548, 557-558 (4th Cir. 2013).
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – arguing that a Maryland County had imposed a substantial burden on a church’s attempt to build an 800-seat church on its own 119-acre site.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed, since the church had:
“presented considerable evidence that its current facilities inadequately serve its needs,”
and that the
“delay, uncertainty and expense”
in looking for a different property may create a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise, in violation of RLUIPA.
Chabad Lubavitch v. Borough of Litchfield, CT (U.S. Ct. of Appeals, 2d Cir.) – 2014
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a case involving an Orthodox Jewish congregation seeking to expand a house for use as a synagogue.
The U.S. Department of Justice successfully argued that:
- discrimination does not need to be proven in order to make out a claim under RLUIPA’s substantial burden factor; and that
- in evaluating RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision, the appropriate test is the multi-factor test outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp (1977), for housing discrimination cases.
In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. Justice Department Negotiated Settlements
United States v. Maui County, Hawaii – 2003
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action against a certain Hawaii County after it denied a permit to a small, nondenominational Christian church – Hale O Kaula – which had held services on Maui since 1960, to build a church on 5.85 acres of land located in an agricultural district.
The church encouraged its members to grow food in accordance with Biblical principles, and live in harmony with the land.
Therefore, being located in an agricultural district was essential to its religious philosophy.
Since the county had previously issued permits to various secular assemblies located in the district – including rodeo facilities, petting zoos, and sports fields – the county subsequently settled with the church:
- allowing it to build its church, and
- paying it damages and attorney’s fees.
United States v. City of Hollywood, Florida – 2005
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action against the City of Hollywood, Florida, after it denied a permit for an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to be located in a residential neighborhood – when such permits were routinely granted to other houses of worship.
The U.S. Department of Justice obtained a consent decree from the city and the synagogue which:
- allowed the synagogue to continue to operate at the location, and to expand in the neighborhood in the future, and
- required training for city officials.
In addition, a separate agreement required the city to pay $2 million in damages and attorneys’ fees to the synagogue.
Albanian Associated Fund v. Township of Wayne, New Jersey – 2006
After a New Jersey Township delayed a mosque’s building application for more than three years, the township subsequently tried to stop the building project altogether by claiming the property under the power of eminent domain.
In 2006, the mosque filed suit under RLUIPA and various state and federal claims, and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in opposition to the Township’s motion for Summary Judgment.
The U.S. Department of Justice claimed that the mosque had produced sufficient evidence which demonstrated that the Township deliberately thwarted the mosque’s application for a conditional use permit based upon discriminatory reasons, pursuant to the exercise of its power of eminent domain.
The federal district court agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice that the use of eminent domain power to bypass zoning regulations could violate RLUIPA – and the parties ultimately settled the case.
United States v. City of Waukegan, Illinois, No. 08-C-1013 (N.D. Ill. filed February 19, 2008).
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action under RLUIPA’s equal terms provision against an Illinois city with respect to its exclusion of places of worship from commercial districts that permitted clubs, lodges, meetings halls, and theaters – after the town notified four small churches operating in locations where nonreligious assembly uses were permitted – that the churches were violation of the zoning code.
The U.S. Department of Justice reached a consent decree with the city, requiring it to put religious assemblies on an equal footing with other public assemblies.
United States v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County and Nashville, Tennessee – 2009
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action after the city of Nashville, Tennessee, amended its zoning code in order to keep a Christian group, Teen Challenge, from constructing a residential substance abuse center.
The U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement with the city under RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act, which permitted Teen Challenge to proceed with its plans to build the residential treatment center.
Palm Beach Gardens, FL – 2011
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation in response to a Florida city’s requirement that a church seek zoning approval in order to continue renting a high school cafeteria in which to hold worship meetings for its 25 members.
The U.S. Department of Justice closed the investigation after the city amended its zoning code in order:
- to allow religious groups having less than 100 members a right of assembly, and
- to apply the same rules to larger religious organizations which it applied to clubs, meetings halls, and other places of assembly.
United States v. City of Lilburn, 1:11-CV-2871 (N.D. Ga. filed August 29, 2011).
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action – and subsequently obtained a consent decree – allowing a Shia Muslim congregation to build a new mosque at its current location.
The U.S. Department of Justice had alleged that the Georgia city’s previous refusal to issue a construction permit was based upon anti-Muslim bias, and that other similar sized churches had been allowed to construct houses of worship.
Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA bars discrimination
“against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”
Under RLUIPA, an applicant cannot be treated differently in a zoning application by reason of:
- the religion represented, or
- the particular denomination or sect to which the applicant belongs.
United States v. County of Henrico (E.D. Va.) – 2011
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action, and subsequently obtained a consent decree, allowing a Muslim congregation to construct a mosque in Virginia.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleged:
- that the Virginia county’s denial of a rezoning application was based on the anti-Muslim bias of county officials and members of the public, and
- that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the congregation’s religious exercise.
United States v. City of Lomita, No. 2:13-CV-00707 (E.D. Cal. filed March 3, 2013).
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action, and ultimately obtained a settlement order, when it alleged that a California city imposed a substantial burden on a Muslim congregation by denying a request by the Islamic Center of the South Bay to replace an aging and inadequate mosque with a new mosque.
The existing mosque – which representative a permitted use – consisted of a group of buildings used for various activities, and a large overflow tent adjacent to the prayer hall.
While the city initially prohibited the mosque from replacing the existing buildings and tent with a single new building, the case was resolved by a consent decree to allow the requested improvements.
United States v. City of St. Anthony Village (D. Minn.) – 2015
Minnesota Church Law – Land Use Restrictions
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated legal action against the city of St. Anthony, Minnesota, alleging that the city’s failure to issue a permit for the AbuHuraira Islamic Center to open a prayer center in the basement of an office building located in a light industrial zone violated RLUIPA.
The U.S. Department of Justice had claimed:
- that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the Muslim congregation, and
- that allowing “assemblies, meeting lodges, and convention halls,” but not religious assemblies, violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms provision.
In 2014, the federal court in Minneapolis entered a consent order permitting the Muslim congregation to use the building as a place of worship as of January 5, 2015.
United States v. Des Plaines (N.D. Ill.) – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action against an Illinois city with respect to its refusal to rezone a parcel of land in order to allow a Bosnian Muslim congregation to use a vacant office building as a mosque.
The U.S. Department of Justice suit alleged that the city treated the Muslim congregation less favorably than it treated nonreligious assemblies and other religious assemblies.
United States v. Pittsfield (E.D. Mi.) – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice brought legal action against a Michigan Township alleging that it had improperly denied rezoning of a parcel on which the Michigan Islamic Academy sought to build a new school.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that the zoning denial imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the school and its students.
U.S. Justice Department Investigations
Garden Grove, California – 2007
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated a California city with respect to its denial of approval for a Buddhist group to convert a commercial building located in the city’s office-professional zone – formerly used as a medical office – into a temple.
The U.S. Department of Justice closed its investigation after the city agreed to allow the group to locate its temple on the site.
Gainesville, Florida – 2008
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated a Florida city after it had refused to issue a permit to Fire of God Ministries to operate a church in a building formerly used as a Moose Lodge.
As part of the settlement agreement, the city allowed the church to operate on the site, and changed its zoning code to put religious assemblies on the same footing as nonreligious assemblies.
Berkeley, Illinois – 2008
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated an Illinois city after it denied a permit to a Muslim congregation to make exterior changes to a building to give it a more mosque-like appearance, including adding a minaret.
The Muslim congregation had operated a mosque in a former school building on a 4.5 acre parcel in the Village of Berkeley, Illinois for more than 20 years.
The mosque sought to build a 13,000 square foot addition to the building in order to accommodate its growing congregation.
In 2008, the city agreed to allow the project to be completed.
United States v. Suffern, New York – 2010
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a consent decree which permitted the continued operation of a facility providing food and lodging to Sabbath-observant Jews in order to enable them to visit sick relatives at a New York village hospital on the Sabbath.
Schodack, NY – 2011
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated a New York town’s refusal to approve a zoning application by a small church renting space in a commercial property center in which various nonreligious assemblies – including membership clubs and lodges, funeral homes, and libraries – were allowed to operate.
In response to the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the town amended its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with other non-religious assemblies.
Brewer, ME – 2013
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated a Maine city’s denial of zoning approval to The Rock Church, which would have allowed it to expand within a commercial property strip mall.
In response to the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the town amended its zoning code to put places of worship on the same footing with clubs, community service organizations, theaters, indoor recreation facilities, night clubs, funeral homes, and child care centers.
Bazetta, OH – 2014
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice was able to convince an Ohio township to amend its zoning rules in order to:
- allow religious houses of worship in residential zones, and
- treat churches equally in the same manner as other nonreligious activities in commercial zones.
Kennesaw, GA – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated legal action in Georgia in response to a city’s refusal to issue a permit to a Muslim congregation to lease space in a commercial district.
The city subsequently amended its ordinance in order to allow places of worship in all of its zoning districts – thereby reversing prior favorable treatment given to various non-religious assemblies.
James City County, VA – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice closed its investigation of a Virginia County after the county rezoned a 40-acre site in order to allow the Peninsula Pentecostal Church to construct a church on the site.
Palatine, IL – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice closed an investigation of an Illinois city after it amended its zoning code in order to allow the Korean Bethel Presbyterian Church to move into a vacant building formerly used as an indoor golf training center – in a commercial zone where various nonreligious uses had been permitted.
Lauderhill, FL – 2015
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice closed an investigation of a Florida city after the city changed its zoning code in order to remove certain restrictions on the location of churches, including a prohibition against freestanding church structures located within 1,000 feet of another church – in certain zones.
Garden City, KS – 2016
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice closed an investigation of a city in Kansas after the city made changes to its zoning code in order to treat religious assemblies the same as nonreligious assemblies – such as auditoriums, funeral homes, lodges, meeting halls, private clubs, and schools – in its commercial zones.
Lindstrom, MN – 2017
In March of 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation with respect to the denial of an application made to the Chisago County Board of Commissioners by a group of Muslims from the European country of Bosnia to build a Muslim cemetery south of Lindstrom, Minnesota.
The board initially denied the Muslim group’s permit in December, 2016, even though the county’s planning commission had recommended its approval.
However, the board subsequently voted unanimously to approve the cemetery permit, after being warned that the county would face religious discrimination claims under RLUIPA.
Conclusion – Minnesota Church Law – Land Use Restrictions
Minnesota Church Attorney
Legal Representation of Minnesota Churches
Since 1992, Attorney Gary C. Dahle has represented a variety of Minnesota churches with respect to:
- church mergers,
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- bond financing for construction purposes,
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- clergy issues,
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- real property title issues,
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Attorney Gary C. Dahle has represented churches located in the Minnesota cities of Arden Hills, Blaine, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Chaska, Corcoran, Coon Rapids, Glencoe, Mounds View, Roseville, St. Louis Park, and Wyoming.
If you need assistance with any aspect of church law in any Minnesota county, contact attorney Gary C. Dahle, at 763-780-8390, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gary C. Dahle – Attorney at Law
2704 County Road 10, Mounds View, MN 55112
Phone: 763-780-8390 Fax: 763-780-1735
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