Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 23, 2019

US DOJ Closes RLUIPA Investigation After City Amends it Zoning Code to Treat Places of Worship Equally with Nonreligious Assemblies

This summary appears in the May 2019 issue of the Religious Freedom in Focus newsletter published by the U.S. Department of Justice.

On April 30, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma closed their investigation of the City of Pryor Creek, Oklahoma, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the City amended its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with nonreligious assemblies.  In July 2017, the Department opened an investigation of the City’s treatment of churches and other places of worship in its zoning code, after learning that the City had denied a special use permit to a church and ordered it to vacate its location in a commercial zoning district.

The City’s zoning code required places of worship to obtain special use permits to locate in commercial zoning districts but allowed numerous nonreligious assemblies, such as fraternal organizations, lodge halls, museums, theaters, public auditoriums, restaurants, childcare centers, schools, and private recreation centers, in the zone as of right.  The City denied a permit to the Cornerstone Truth of God Church—a small, storefront church that holds services and Bible study three days a week—and ordered the church to vacate the premises within 90 days.

RLUIPA protects places of worship and other religious uses of property from discriminatory or unduly burdensome zoning or landmarking regulations.  Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA states that “[n]o 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.”  This provision, according to lead sponsors Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, was included in RLUIPA because “[z]oning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meetings halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. . . . Churches have been denied the right to meet in rented storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters and skating rinks—in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.” (quoted in DOJ’s Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA).

After the Department opened its investigation, the City granted the church a special use permit, rescinded its order to vacate, and initiated efforts to amend its zoning code’s treatment of places of worship.  In March 2019, the City revised its code to permit places of worship in several commercial zoning districts and to equalize the treatment of places of worship and nonreligious assemblies.  In response to the zoning code changes, the Department closed its investigation.

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