Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 18, 2013

U.S. DOJ Reports that Maine Municipality Amends its Zoning Code in Response to RLUIPA Investigation Involving Equal Terms

The following is reprinted as reported in DOJ’s Religious Freedom in Focus Quarterly Newsletter (April 2013):

On April 22, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of Brewer, Maine under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city amended its zoning code to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies. The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation in August 2012 after receiving a complaint that the city denied a church’s application for permission to expand within a strip mall in a commercial district.

Rock Church is a Christian church that opened approximately six years ago in Bangor. It quickly outgrew its space, and its leadership decided to open a second location in Brewer. In September 2009, Rock Church leased space in the City Center Mall, a strip mall located in Brewer’s Convenience Business District. The leased space included a small cafe, a sanctuary, office, and storage room. In early 2012, Rock Church and the strip mall’s owner were in the process of renegotiating the lease to provide more space within the mall for Rock Church. When the church applied for a renovation permit, the city informed it that churches were not a permitted use in the Convenience Business District. While barring churches entirely, the district allowed clubhouses and clubs, community service organizations, theaters, indoor recreation facilities, night clubs, funeral homes, and child care centers upon site plan approval.

The church closed its operations in Brewer and re-combined with its Bangor congregation. The landlord filed a lawsuit against Brewer under RLUIPA in U.S. District Court, claiming that the city had violated Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which provides that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” The suit also claimed that the city’s zoning ordinance violated RLUIPA Section 2(b)(3), which bars governments from imposing or implementing any land use regulation that “unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.” This suit was dismissed as not ripe on November 19, 2012.
The United States opened a RLUIPA investigation of Brewer’s zoning code on August 21, 2012, seeking information about the treatment of religious and nonreligious assemblies by the city.

On September 11, 2012, the Brewer City Council amended its zoning code to permit churches in the Convenience Business District with a site use plan. Then, in February 2013, the City Council amended the zoning code to treat churches at least as well as nonreligious assemblies in all districts. Churches are now allowed as of right or with a site use plan in the vast majority of zoning districts within the city. In response to these changes, the Civil Rights Division closed the investigation.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious institutions and assemblies from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise through application of zoning and landmarking laws. On the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA on September 22, 2010, the Department of Justice issued a Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA, along with a Statement on the Land Use Provisions of RLUIPA with common questions and answers about this important law. More information about the land use sections of RLUIPA is available at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section website.

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