Have you heard the joke, “if con is the opposite of pro, then congress is the opposite of progress?” While there might be several examples supporting the truth of this statement, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act (“RPUIPA”), passed by Congress, is not one of them.
RLUIPA is an example of Congress actually doing well by churches and protecting them from overzealous zoning officials. Churches were being pushed out of cities and counties. For example, they were being told they could not locate in the business district because church use was supposedly inconsistent with generating a revenue stream for the city. But on the other hand, churches were also told they could not locate in residential areas on the theory that church use caused traffic and noise issues so it was inconsistent with residential use as well. Churches had a real uphill battle on their hands just to locate within any part of urban and suburban areas.
To make matters worse, cities could discriminate against churches under the guise of a bogus safety issue that for some reason, only applied to churches and not other similar uses. Something had to be done to rein in this seemingly unstoppable power of zoning officials to hinder church property use.
So Congress stepped up and provided churches with meaningful protection against these overzealous zoning officials by passing RLUIPA. This federal law prohibits towns and counties from treating churches differently than other similar uses. It protects churches from ordinances that substantially burden their beliefs and practices.
But a recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of appeals in River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest, Illinois, threatens to gut the protections of RLUIPA. In this case, the River of Life church bought a building in a commercial district to hold its church services. When the church bought the property, the following uses were automatically permitted: art galleries, gymnasiums, meeting halls, lounges and taverns, along with several other uses. In addition, the following uses were allowed with a permit: museums, day care centers, schools of any kind, community centers, and live entertainment venues.
But, the city prohibited any and all church use in the district! What possible reason could the city have for prohibiting a church, which teaches moral values to the citizenry, while allowing community centers and live entertainment venues?
So the church filed a lawsuit claiming that the town's actions violated their constitutional rights, as well as their rights under RLUIPA. But the Seventh Circuit ruled against the church. In so doing, the Seventh Circuit effectively eliminated the protections of RLUIPA. We will delve deeper into the court's reasons in future blogs, but for now, I would like to point out this quote from the court: “Commerce and industry must be recognized for what they are, necessary and desirable elements of the community….” See 2010 WL 2630602, *5 (C.A. 7 (Ill.)).
According to the court, the town was justified in discriminating against the city because “commerce and industry” are “necessary and desirable elements of the community”. But what about the church? Is not the work of the church necessary and desirable for the community? Of course it is. But to certain government officials who only understand the value of the dollar, providing moral direction and the other benefits of churches is worthless.
Maybe there will come a day when we remember that churches are also beneficial - and even necessary - to communities.
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