WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today that it has filed a lawsuit against the city of Walnut, Calif., alleging that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), when, in 2008, it denied a conditional use permit to the Chung Tai Zen Center so that it could build and operate a Buddhist house of worship at property it then owned in the city.
The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleges 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 alleges 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.
"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. "No faith should be singled out for inferior treatment when it seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws."
The government’s complaint seeks a court order declaring that the actions of the city with respect to the Zen Center violated RLUIPA and an injunction to prohibit the city from discriminating against the Zen Center and other religious entities and institutions that seek to operate in Walnut.
"Upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans is one of the most important objectives of the Department of Justice and this office," said André Birotte, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. "We are committed to combating religious discrimination and promoting religious liberty for all people, regardless of their faith or religious denomination. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 is an important tool in protecting individuals and houses of worship from discriminatory and unduly burdensome zoning regulations."
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.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/religionpamp.htm.
The complaint is an allegation of unlawful conduct. The allegations must be proven in federal court.