From the DOJ Religious Freedom in Focus Newsletter:
On December 15, the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to mayors and other municipal leaders throughout the country highlighting the requirements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The letter outlines the land-use provisions of RLUIPA, which protects the right of religious assemblies and institutions from discriminatory or unjustifiably burdensome zoning and landmarking laws. The letter describes documents and resources available from the Department of Justice to help local governments comply with RLUIPA.
In 2000, Congress, by unanimous consent and with the support of a broad range of civil rights and religious organizations, enacted RLUIPA to protect the rights of places of worship, and other religious institutions such as religious schools and social service providers, to locate in communities. The letter describes the purposes behind RLUIPA, and its basic provisions: a requirement that zoning and landmarking laws may only impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise through application of regulations if it is the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling governmental interest; a requirement that religious assemblies be treated as well as nonreligious assemblies like fraternal organizations and assembly halls; a bar on discrimination based on religion or religious denomination in land use laws; and a bar on laws that totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.
The letter to local government officials was prompted by a concern that the Civil Rights Division heard from religious and civil rights leaders in a series of roundtables on religious freedom held around the country in 2016 (this series is summarized in the July 2016 report Combating Religious Discrimination Today). Participants reported their perception that municipal, county, and other state and local officials were insufficiently familiar with the land use provisions of RLUIPA, and that litigation could be avoided if local officials were better informed of their obligations under RLUIPA early in the process.
In addition to outlining the different provisions of RLUIPA in detail and providing case examples, the letter provides links to DOJ resources on RLUIPA, including Questions and Answers on RLUIPA, the DOJ RLUIPA web page, and Reports on DOJ’s RLUIPA enforcement efforts issued in 2010 and 2016.