Churches across the nation are increasingly facing discrimination from local zoning authorities with respect to location or improvement of their facilities. Zoning Boards often want to eliminate churches from downtown and commercial areas because churches do not generate retail and tax revenue. They also attempt to restrict churches in residential areas for allegedly creating traffic and noise problems. The result has been that our nation`s houses of faith have their freedom to worship where and how they choose violated by ignorant or hostile zoning officials.
In response to the religious discrimination against churches, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) , which protects religious land uses from discrimination. RLUIPA states that government zoning authorities may not use zoning laws to discriminate against churches unless they have a compelling state interest in doing so.
Even if a municipality can show that its zoning laws serve a compelling interest, it still must demonstrate that its actions are the least restrictive means of protecting that interest. In most cases, those interests may be easily served by restrictions that fall short of denial of a variance or special use permit.
Both before enactment of RLUIPA and since its passage, the ACLJ has been in the vanguard of defending churches from the unconstitutional application of zoning laws. The ACLJ has successfully defended both churches, and small groups of believers, against over-zealous zoning authorities. The ACLJ remains committed to the principle that the use of zoning laws to curtail the religious freedoms of churches is unconstitutional.