WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced a settlement with the city of Walnut, Calif., resolving allegations that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied the Chung Tai Zen Center of Walnut a permit to construct a Buddhist house of worship on property owned by the Zen Center, thus forcing the Zen Center to move to another facility in Pomona, Calif. The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal district judge, resolves the lawsuit between the United States and the city of Walnut.
“Religious freedom is among our most cherished rights, and our nation’s laws prohibit cities and towns from discriminating based on religion when they make zoning decisions related to houses of worship,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division. “We are pleased that we have reached an agreement with the city of Walnut that prohibits inferior treatment of any religious organization that seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws.”
“The Justice Department has a cherished tradition of protecting the civil rights of all Americans,” said André Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. “The settlement in the case against the city of Walnut is another step toward promoting religious liberty for all people, regardless of their faith or religious denomination.”
The case arose from the city’s handling and ultimate denial of the Zen Center’s application for a zoning permit to operate a Buddhist house of worship. Under the Walnut code, houses of worship may operate in the area in which the Zen Center wanted to build its facility if granted a conditional use permit. The government’s complaint alleged that, until it denied the Zen Center’s application in January 2008, the city had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship since at least 1980. The complaint further alleged that the city treated the Zen Center differently than similarly situated religious and non-religious facilities. For example, the complaint alleges that in August 2008, the city approved a conditional use permit for a Catholic church that, when completed, will be larger than the Zen Center’s proposed facility. The complaint also alleges that between 1998 and 2003, the city built a civic center complex two blocks from Zen Center’s former location in Walnut.
The city has agreed, as part of settlement, not to impose differential zoning or building requirements on other houses of worship. The city also agreed that its leaders and managers, and certain city employees, will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the city will adopt new procedures that clarify its appeals process for houses of worship, and will report periodically to the Justice Department.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning decisions. Persons who believe that they been subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning may contact the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at 1-800-896-7743. Additional information about the Justice Department’s efforts to combat religious discrimination may be found at www.justice.gov/crt/spec_topics/religiousdiscrimination/ .