Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the RLUIPA Defense Blog and is reprinted with permission: https://www.rluipa-defense.com/2016/08/federal-court-rules-alabama-sex-offender-law-is-land-use-regulation-under-rluipa
In Martin v. Houston (M.D. Alabama 2016), the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama considered a pastor’s religious discrimination claims involving the state legislature’s enactment and enforcement of a sex offender law that prevented the pastor’s transitional housing program. The law in question (Alabama Code § 45-11-82) (the “Act”) prohibited individuals whose names are listed on the Alabama sex offender list from living together in the same home, and further provides that offenders cannot live on the same property as another offender unless the homes are at least 300 feet apart. In response to the threatened enforcement of the Act, the pastor discontinued his transitional housing program.
Previously, in considering the defendant’s motion to dismiss all claims, the court ruled that the pastor had to “show cause” why the court had jurisdiction to consider his RLUIPA substantial burden claim.
The court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the RLUIPA substantial burden claim. What is particularly interesting about the court’s decision is that it finds that the Act is a “land use regulation” under RLUIPA. Recall, RLUIPA applies only to land use regulations. The Court stated:
It first bears noting that the precise definition of “zoning” is difficult to delineate…. In general terms, zoning refers to the “legislative division of a region, esp[ecially] a municipality, into separate districts with different regulations within the districts for land use, building size, and the like….”
The Act makes territorial divisions in the same way. It divides the state of Alabama into two districts: one where sex offenders may not live within 300 feet of each other, and one where they may. The former includes the entirety of Chilton County, and the latter comprises all other counties within the state. Rather than imposing in personam restrictions on adult sex offenders themselves, the legislature opted to limit the acceptable uses of property within the Chilton County zone. In this sense, for purposes of applying the individualized assessments prerequisite, the Act qualifies as a zoning law, and thus constitutes a land use regulation. (citations omitted)
The court also found that the allegations supported the finding at this point in the proceedings that the enactment and threatened enforcement of the Act against the pastor’s property was an individualized assessment for the proposed use of his property. Further, the court concluded that the RLUIPA claim was adequately pled, based on the pastor’s allegation that the Act “applied sufficient pressure … such that it coerced him to cease his settlement ministry, which he maintained in furtherance of his religious beliefs.”
The court’s Memorandum Opinion and Order is available here.