RLUIPA and Eminent Domain: Probing the Boundaries of Religious Land Use Protection

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I. INTRODUCTION

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA)1 passed through Congress "by unanimous consent"2 and was signed into law by President Clinton on September 22, 2000.3 RLUIPA, described generally as "a bill designed to protect the free exercise of religion from unnecessary governmental interference,"4 represents the most recent in a series of congressional responses to the Supreme Court's restrictive rendering of the Free Exercise Clause in Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court held that neutral, generally applicable laws need only satisfy rational basis analysis, even though they may place burdens on free exercise rights.5 Eager to reinstate a strict scrutiny standard in free exercise jurisprudence, Congress first attempted to countermand the Smith ruling with passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).6 However, in City of Boeme v. Flores, the Supreme Court held that RFRA was unconstitutional and inapplicable to the states because it exceeded Congress's remedial powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.7 After failing to pass a replacement for RFRA called the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) in 19988 and 1999,9 Congress decided to narrow its focus in RLUIPA to two key areas: land use regulation and state institutions.10

Academics have already produced a significant body of scholarship and criticism on RLUIPA,11 focusing broadly on the debate surrounding RLUIPA's constitutionality,12 discussion of its legislative merits,13 and evaluation of its effectiveness.14 By contrast, legal scholars have directed far less attention to unanswered questions suggested by the vagueness of the law's scope and many of its provisions. For example, while RLUIPA imprecisely defines "land use regulation" as "a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant's use or development of land,"15 it also calls for broad statutory construction.16 Under RLUIPA's regime, courts hearing arguments in the context of religious land use thus face the daunting challenge of determining the boundaries of RLUIPA's application and force, with little clear guidance from the statute's terms. Perhaps Congress intended the vague language as a means of securing the broadest possible protection for religious exercise without running afoul of its constitutional limitations. Whatever the case, RLUIPA leaves to the courts the task of tracing the appropriate lines.

One of the most interesting border disputes to arise from this vagueness problem is whether the statute's definition of "land use regulation" should be construed broadly enough to include eminent domain proceedings.17 In the first case to hear the issue, Cottonwood Christian Center v. City of Cypress ,18 a federal district court held that the city's denial of a conditional use permit and invocation of eminent domain against the church were subject to strict scrutiny under RLUIPA.19 The court noted that, "[e]ven if the Court were only considering the condemnation proceedings, they would fall under RLUIPA's definition of 'land use regulation' . . . [because the City's] authority to exercise eminent domain ... is based on a zoning system developed by the City."20 Apparently classifying the eminent domain proceedings as "the application of such a [zoning] law,"21 the Cottonwood court adhered to RLUIPA's broad construction clause and marked the first boundary line accordingly.

Subsequent courts have not been so eager to follow that congressional mandate. For example, in St. John's United Church of Christ v. City of Chicago,22 the court took a much narrower view of RLUIPA's land use definition and the Cottonwood court's analysis:

This Court is not willing to take such an expansive view, nor does it believe that Cottonwood stands for such a sweeping proposition. While this Court may not agree with the passing reference to eminent domain in Cottonwood, that case can be read to suggest that RLUIPA is applicable to the specific eminent domain actions where the condemnation proceeding is intertwined with other actions by the city involving zoning regulations. …