When the Freedom to Worship Became a Reality
For Americans, religious liberty has always been guaranteed to us by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But how often can we actually point to specific laws that actively protect one’s right to worship? This September marked the 20th anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that has been crucial in helping religious institutions and church congregations secure their right to publicly worship. This law has been particularly important in disputes between municipalities and people of faith, in which a church purchases property, but is prevented from using it for religious purposes. RLUIPA has also been integral in affecting the outcome of lawsuits in which religious or racial discrimination has been a hidden reason for the denial of a special use permit.
(The U.S. Department of Justice recently released this report in honor of the 20th Anniversary of RLUIPA)
At Mauck & Baker, we have been privileged to fight in court for several churches who want nothing more than to bring the love of Jesus to their town or city, but can’t because of complicated, and sometimes unlawful, regulatory barriers. We rely on the conditions of RLUIPA with almost every church zoning case we take.
In honor of this 20th anniversary, here are five of our most recent cases in which RLUIPA helped achieve not just the freedom to hold religious beliefs, but the freedom to carry out those beliefs in public.
In 2018 we received word that a multi-site church in New York called Christian Fellowship Center (CFC) was being prevented from holding worship services at a building they currently owned. They faced opposition from the local zoning board and were harassed by many locals who disagreed with the church’s Biblical beliefs. However, it was clear to us that CFC had every legal right to worship at this property. Days after filing a lawsuit, the United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting our case, and within a month the judge assigned to the case granted the church a swift victory.
In their report about the 20th anniversary of RLUIPA, the DOJ quoted CFC’s pastor, Jamie Sinclair:
“Religious liberty is a wonderful ideal, but without practical safeguards, zoning laws may be used to suppress religious freedoms. Fortunately, we have RLUIPA which helps protect religious organizations from onerous zoning laws. Today, thanks in large part to RLUIPA, my local church is gathering regularly at our building for public worship.”
Millennium Park in Chicago is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States. That’s why four Wheaton College students saw it as the perfect place to evangelize to people from all around the world. After all, parks are spaces meant for sharing culture and exchanging ideas, right? Unfortunately, in 2019 the City of Chicago didn’t see it that way, so they attempted to shoo away anyone preaching the Gospel in this area.
The Wheaton students came to Mauck & Baker for help, and we saw that the City’s rules prohibiting evangelism in Millennium Park were simply an excuse for religious discrimination. After holding a press conference at “The Bean” and filing suit, the case made headlines across the country.
Our duty to protect religious freedom isn’t just limited to one faith. In 2020 Mauck & Baker helped a Hindu-Buddhist church in Hawaii negotiate with their city planners who were making the zoning process overly difficult and the ability to secure a special use permit nearly impossible.
By hiring Mauck & Baker, this church was able to be successfully approved without litigation, which saved them money and time. This shows you don’t always need to file a lawsuit to achieve justice.
Currently Mauck & Baker is in the process of helping a Christian camp in the woods of Wisconsin that has been stalled for years by its local zoning board. Camp Zion,
a year-round Christian camp that provides enrichment for children, their families, and adults, has been trying to produce a new dining commons and fellowship center to replace a 35-year old, obsolete facility. The zoning board, which is being swayed by outside opinions, is treating the camp unfairly.
Hopefully, this will be another case where RLUIPA helps. Stay tuned!
Another lawsuit in progress is Word Seed Church v. Village of Homewood. The Word Seed Church has filed a lawsuit seeking equal treatment in the purchase of property to be used for religious purposes in response to the Village of Homewood’s unfair and burdensome zoning ordinance.
Currently, the Village of Homewood subjects religious assemblies to an expensive, time consuming, and overly burdensome review process throughout its entire jurisdiction. In contrast, similar nonreligious assemblies are not so restricted as the Village freely permits them throughout several of its zoning districts.
Even though RLUIPA was designed to protect religious institutions, it's lack of specificity continues to cause problems. See attorney John Mauck's proposed amendments and how to call for change: