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First Appeals Victory Under New Zoning Discrimination Law

WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Department of Justice today announced a decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a matter argued by the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, R. Alexander Acosta, that the city of Surfside, Florida violated the religious liberties of two small Orthodox Jewish congregations when it barred them from meeting in rented commercial space. Today’s decision represents the first time that a house of worship has won under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) in a federal court of appeals.

The two congregations who sued in this case, Midrash Sephardi and Young Israel of Bal Harbor, had rented space above a bank in the city’s commercial district. Surfside’s zoning code permits private clubs, lodge halls, dance studios, music studios, and language schools in the commercial district, but excludes houses of worship. When threatened with eviction, the congregations challenged under RLUIPA, and the United States intervened in support of the congregations. The federal trial court ruled in favor of the city last year.

Reversing that decision, the Court of Appeals today held that the city had violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision, which requires that religious assemblies be treated no less equally than “a non-religious assembly or institution.” By allowing private clubs such as a masonic lodge, but yet barring the congregations, the Court of Appeals held that the city had violated RLUIPA. The court rejected Surfside’s claim that its private clubs contribute to the local economy in a manner that the synagogues did not.

The court also rejected both the city’s claim that RLUIPA exceeded Congress’s legislative authority, and its claim that RLUIPA’s goal of protecting houses of worship from discrimination violated the “separation of church and state.”

“Today, the court sent a strong message that the right to worship is a civil right, and that zoning laws cannot be used to discriminate against churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship,” said Assistant Attorney General Acosta. “The Department of Justice will not tolerate illegal discrimination in zoning on the basis of religion.”

The Civil Rights Division is involved in a number of ongoing religious liberty cases. Last week, a federal court in Oklahoma permitted the Civil Rights Division to intervene in a suit on behalf of a sixth-grade Muslim girl who was suspended from school for wearing a headscarf. The Division has also participated in numerous cases seeking equal treatment for religious clubs in use of public and public

school property. More information about the Division’s religious liberty cases may be found at <>.