Case Law Accumulates Implementing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
A federal law to protect the practice of religion that was passed unanimously and signed into law by President Clinton in September 2000 has precipitated a significant amount of litigation between local governments and religious institutions over zoning. The law, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, prohibits government from imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a way that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
In a talk before the New York State Association of Towns in February 2005 at the New York Hilton, attorney Brian S. Sokoloff of Miranda & Sokoloff, located in Mineola, New York, presented a study of litigation leading to RLUIPA and case law that has developed since. Of particular interest, he presented a roster of decisions in various federal courts defining the phrases "substantial burden on religious practice" and "compelling government interest." He pointed out that in 2003 Judge Conner held for the Southern District of New York that RLUIPA prevented the Village of Mamaroneck from blocking the Westchester Day School from expanding by constructing a new building for shul for Orthodox Jewish children for praying, classrooms and other school rooms such as a library.
Another ruling cited in Mr. Sokoloff's study, Cottonwood Christian Center v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, 218 F. Supp. 2d 1203 (C.D. Cal. 2002), is an example of the successful application of RLUIPA to protect a church against unwarranted government action, in this case eminent domain for the purpose of erasing blight and generating tax revenue.