Challenging Property Zones: Legal Issues That Religious Organizations Face

As religious organizations grow in size, congregations and followers need new places of worship. For example, by 2012, the number of mosques in the United States had increased 72 percent compared to the year 2000. When religious groups decide to open new facilities, leaders must often contend with complicated legal hurdles, including issues with property zones. Learn more about the legal challenges that religious groups face, and find out how United States law protects these people.

Land-use zoning in the United States

In 1916, New York City adopted the first legal zoning ordinance in the United States, and, since then, almost every large town or city in the United States has followed suit. Zoning regulations divide towns and cities into distinct districts, where landowners can only use their properties in certain ways. Generally, zoning laws divide land into residential, commercial and industrial zones, along with a variety of sub-divisions.

Within these districts, many other detailed restrictions generally apply. These restrictions can affect:

  • Building types and sizes
  • Number of buildings
  • Number of rooms in a building
  • Minimum lot areas
  • Historic features

It's purposefully difficult to work against these restrictions because this protects residents and business owners. As such, if you want to convert an industrial building to a residential property, you'll often need to challenge zoning laws and restrictions. For religious groups, this often creates conflict.

Why religious groups face legal challenges

American courts will uphold zoning laws if they believe the regulations protect public health and safety, comfort, morals and welfare. While some elements of this jurisdiction fall to objective information (such as scientific evidence of a link to human health issues), other aspects of these decisions become subjective. This subjectivity quickly leads to disagreement and, sometimes, litigation.

In 2013, a Bosnian Muslim congregation filed a lawsuit against an Illinois City Council. The group alleged that the City Council violated the group's religious rights by denying a challenge against a property zone in Des Plaines, Illinois. The group wanted to convert an empty office building into a Muslim house of worship, but the Council denied the request.

Members of the City Council claimed that it was not safe to set up a place of worship in an industrial park. One of the aldermen who denied the challenge highlighted that the change would put children in danger and would also cause problems for other manufacturers in the area.

The case highlights the growing tension between religious leaders and planning authorities. In many cases, property-zoning laws seem to contradict constitutional laws.

The Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) came into law on September 22, 2000. Congress passed the law because of growing concerns that state and local governments could restrict religious liberty by denying permits for land use. In some cases, evidence suggested that some localities used zoning laws to stop certain religious groups operating in key areas.

The Act forces planning authorities to undergo a 'compelling interest test' that aims to check that planning laws do not undermine any religious group's rights. Land-use officials must show the courts that they have a strong reason to reject a zoning challenge.

What's more, the law protects religious groups from exclusion or unequal treatment based solely on their beliefs. According to RLUIPA, zoning officials cannot exclude or unreasonably limit religious assemblies in a single jurisdiction. RLUIPA protection applies in all states across America.

How an attorney can help

An experienced real estate attorney might help your religious group challenge zoning and land-use restrictions. City councils must make planning decisions based on secular land-use impacts, and not any issues related to your group's religious beliefs. An attorney can help you show the Court that a planning authority has broken this law.

For example, part of your planning application may include provision for a canteen or other sponsored dining area. If the authorities have already allowed a commercial restaurant to start trading in the same district, your group could have a strong case to challenge any restriction on your plans.

Zoning laws protect businesses and homeowners from property development that could impede safety, comfort and practicality. Religious groups that want to challenge property zones must often contend with a mixture of objective and subjective decisions, resulting in lengthy, complex litigation.