Court Upholds Local Zoning Authority under RLUIPA

By Pluviose-Fenton, Veronique | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

Court Upholds Local Zoning Authority under RLUIPA


Pluviose-Fenton, Veronique, Nation's Cities Weekly


"Land use law is one of the bastions of local control, largely free of federal intervention," wrote the unanimous 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned a lower court's ruling to determine that local zoning laws can restrict places of worship in an effort to control noise and traffic in residential neighborhoods.

Relying on a litany of Supreme Court decisions, the court stated "zoning is by its very design discriminatory, and that, alone, does not render it invalid." Federal courts would hesitate to interfere with the zoning authority of local governments "as long as a municipality has a rational basis for distinguishing between uses, and that distinction is related to the municipality's legitimate goals."

For more than two years, the 200-plus members of the Congregation Kol Ami attempted to move onto an 11-acre site in a residential cul-de-sac and open a religious school for 120 students.

Neighbors and the Township of Abington, Pa., opposed the plan on the grounds that in a 1992 zoning plan, churches, hospitals and schools are restricted to nonresidential areas.

Specifically, residents and the town's officials complained that the growing congregation (up to 450), a proposed daycare center and plans to expand existing parking spaces for "heavy use occasions" would contribute to excessive noise, traffic and pollution to the quiet, upscale area.

The Congregation Kol Ami sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) on the grounds that the Township of Abington had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by prohibiting religious landowners from locating in residential districts.

RLUIPA requires that local governments demonstrate a compelling government interest before enforcing land-use rules that impose a substantial burden on religious activities.

Last July, a federal district court ruled against the township on the grounds that the town violated the Congregation's equal protection rights by not permitting it to apply for a special permit. In response to the ruling the Town of Abington reversed itself and voted to permit the Congregation to use the property--with 26 conditions.

The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court and concluded that the question for review is whether the Congregation Kol Ami is "similarly situated to the other uses that are permitted as a right, or by special permit, in a certain zone," under the Equal Protection analysis. …

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