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Loss in RLUIPA case may expand what are considered zoning laws under RLUIPA

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

In Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) Bowie, Maryland v. Prince George’s County, Maryland, 17 F. 4th 497 (4th Cir., Nov. 23, 2021), the Fourth Circuit held that a Prince George’s County (the “County”) water and sewer categorization—which was required to be legislatively amended prior to development of the property as a proposed church—qualified as a “zoning regulation” under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA,” codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.). As this sewer and water categorization qualified as a “zoning regulation,” the County’s denial of the legislative amendment required that the County demonstrate it had a compelling interest in denial of the legislative amendment, and that denial was the “least restrictive means” to forward that compelling interest—a strict scrutiny standard.

In this instance Prince George’s County lost the case as it determined that traffic concerns were its compelling governmental interest for denying the change in the water and sewer categorization of the property at issue, but it never tied that concern back to its reasoning for denial. In addition, the Fourth Circuit pointed out that traffic issues at the property would be handled at the preliminary plan of subdivision phase—which would occur after the legislative amendment to the water and sewer categorization. The Fourth Circuit, in its analysis of the County's denial, held that the County did not use the least restrictive means to accomplish its asserted compelling governmental interest -- the control of traffic. Indeed, the Fourth Circuit determined that “[t]he County presented no trial evidence to show that it considered any less restrictive means before denying the Application.” Id., 511. An important takeaway would be to understand that in a “substantial burden” RLUIPA case, a community will need to consider other options relating to the property to demonstrate that any action taken is the “least restrictive means” to forward the compelling governmental interest justifying the community’s action, and that it is also important to tie the action back to that compelling governmental interest.

Another big takeaway from this Fourth Circuit case is that a federal court may expand what qualifies as a “zoning regulation” under RLUIPA to attach to more ordinances than those merely enacted via a City’s zoning powers under Chapter 89 RSMo. In fact, the Fourth Circuit determined that “it is not the label that a government puts on its regulation that determines whether RLUIPA applies, but rather how the regulation actually functions. If a regulation divides a community into zones, restricting or limiting how land can be used within each zone, the regulation is a zoning law subject to RLUIPA.” Victory Temple, 17 F.4th at 509 (emphasis added). Thus, cities should be particularly careful in reviewing subdivision, planning, or other items tangentially related to zoning when it comes to religious uses, as RLUIPA may extend beyond zoning regulations derived from Chapter 89 RSMo.

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