Under Guise of Religious Freedom Bill Would Undercut Local Zoning

By Parnas, Susan M. | Nation's Cities Weekly, September 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Under Guise of Religious Freedom Bill Would Undercut Local Zoning


Parnas, Susan M., Nation's Cities Weekly


Congress is preparing to act on legislation to preempt historic and crucial municipal zoning powers as it applies to religious-based uses of land, such as churches and synagogues. The bill, known as the Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998, (RLPA) is sponsored by Representative Charles Canady (R-Fla.).

The House Subcommittee on the Constitution passed the bill by voice vote on August 6, 1998. The full House Judiciary Committee expects to take the preemption bill up this month. The bill is a fundamental attack on state and local authority and seeks to overturn a key Constitutional victory for the National League of Cities by the United States Supreme Court last year.

If passed as drafted, RLPA will have a chilling effect on a city's ability to regulate religious-based uses through its zoning ordinances. Most importantly, Section 3 of RLPA as currently drafted, would wreak havoc with local zoning ordinances, because no government could enact a land use regulation which would:

* Substantially burden religious exercise, except when a government can show that to do so would promote a compelling governmental interest; and that the the "burden" is the least restrictive way for a government to promote the compelling governmental interest;

* Deny religious assemblies a reasonable location in the jurisdiction; or

* Exclude religious assemblies from areas in which nonreligious assemblies are permitted.

The bottom line for cities is that zoning ordinances would essentially be inapplicable to churches, synagogues or other religious-based uses wishing to locate or expand in a particular locality. Under RLPA, religious assemblies cannot be denied a reasonable location in a jurisdiction.

Pursuant to the provisions of RLPA, religious assemblies could successfully argue that they are exempt from neutral zoning regulations such as parking, historical preservation and lot size restrictions under the guise that application of these rules would "substantially burden" religious exercise. …

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