Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Pub.L. 106-274, UnitedStatesCode|42|2000cc-1 et seq. (RLUIPA) is a United States federal law that prohibits the imposition of burdens on the ability of prisoners to worship as they please, as well as making it easier for Churches and other religious institutions to avoid state restrictions on their property use through zoning laws. It was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2000, in an effort to correct the constitutionally objectionable problems of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The act was passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate by unanimous vocal consent, meaning that no objection was raised to its passage, so no vote was taken.

Previous law

In the 1997, the United States Supreme Court had held the RFRA to be unconstitutional, as applied to state and local governments, in "City of Boerne v. Flores", 521 U.S. 507. Unlike the RFRA, which required religious accommodation in virtually all spheres of life, the RLUIPA only applies to prisoners, and Land Use (Zoning) of properties.

In "Employment Div. Dep’t of Human Resources v. Smith", 494 U.S. 872, 883-85 (1990), the Supreme Court had held that a substantial burden on religious exercise was subject to strict scrutiny where the law "lent itself to individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct." That is, where the law allowed different standards to apply in different cases. It was not a case permitting exceptions for freedom of religion when generally applicable health and welfare regulations were in question, and it should be remembered that Smith LOST this case (involving a denial of unemployment benefits where the litigant had used illegal drugs in a religious ceremeony). In short, and in line with the scrutiny regime established in "West Coast Hotel v. Parrish" in 1937, the Court ruled that unless the law is not one of general applicability regardless of specific circumstance, government may act if policy is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, even if the act imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.


In the 2005 case of "Cutter v. Wilkinson", five prisoners in Ohio - including a Wiccan, a Satanist, and a member of a racist Christian sect - successfully sought to apply the protections of the act to their religious practices. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had held that RLUIPA violated the Establishment Clause by impermissibly advancing religion by bestowing benefits to religious prisoners that were unavailable to non-religious prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, unanimously holding that RLUIPA was a permissible accommodation of religion justified by the fact that the government itself had severely burdened the prisoners' religious rights through the act of incarceration. A concurring opinion by Justice Thomas noted that the states could escape the restrictions of RLUIPA simply by refusing federal funds for state prisons.

Zoning and land use

"Cutter v. Wilkinson" concerns the prisoner portion of RLUIPA only. The court explicitly declined to extend the ruling to zoning cases. The Court has yet to hear and rule on the zoning section of the Act.

Section (a) of RLUIPA provides:

  1. General rule. No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government can demonstrate that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution
    1. is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    2. is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
  2. Scope of Application. This subsection applies in any case in which--
    1. the substantial burden is imposed in a program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability; or
    2. the substantial burden affects, or removal of that substantial burden would affect, commerce with foreign nations, among the several States, or with Indian tribes, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability; or
    3. the substantial burden is imposed in the implementation of a land use regulation or system of land use regulations, under which a government makes, or has in place formal or informal procedures or practices that permit the government to make, individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved.

Currently being litigated is the conflict RLUIPA presents relating to municipalities' zoning and regulating rights. Through RLUIPA, Congress has expanded religious accommodations to a point where it appears to restrict municipalities' zoning power. Arguably, RLUIPA gives religious landowners a special right to challenge land use laws which their secular neighbors do not have. Even if a zoning law is void of discrimination Congress would have strict scrutiny apply to the city's regulation.

External links

* [ Comprehensive Resource Site]
* [ The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty]
* [ Preserve Ramapo - Impact of RLUIPA in Ramapo updated daily]

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