City Improperly Excluded Church From Downtown District, Appeals Court Rules

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

July 2011
Volume 47

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Through vigorous enforcement of:

  • Federal statutes prohibiting religion-based discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations;
  • Federal laws against arson and vandalism of houses of worship and bias crimes against people because of their faith; and
  • The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA);

the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

Back issues of this newsletter may be found at You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


A federal appeals court ruled on July 12 that the City of Yuma, Arizona, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it excluded a church from its downtown district. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the city improperly excluded the church from a district that permitted secular membership organizations and other nonreligious assemblies, including auditoriums, performing arts centers, and museums. The United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief and argued before the appeals court in the case, Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas v. City of Yuma.

Centro Familiar is a Baptist church with approximately 250 members. In 2007, it purchased a long-vacant retail property in the Old Town Main Street section of Yuma to use as a church. The city had designed its zoning code to encourage “a lively pedestrian-oriented district” with nightlife and entertainment in the Old Town Main Street area. This area permitted “membership organizations (except religious organizations),” auditoriums, performing arts centers, museums, gyms, and art galleries as of right, but required religious organizations to obtain a conditional use permit. The church applied for such a permit, but was rejected on the grounds that a church would be inconsistent with a “24/7 downtown neighborhood.”

The church filed suit under RLUIPA. Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA prevents governments from treating religious assemblies and institutions on “less than equal terms” with nonreligious assemblies and institutions. A federal trial court ruled against the church.

Reversing the trial court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals agreed with the United States that the church had not been treated on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies. The court noted that RLUIPA does not require a city to allow a church any time that it allows any nonreligious assembly or institution in a zone; rather, what RLUIPA requires is equal treatment. Thus, the court noted, while a ten-member book club is an assembly, a town could nonetheless allow a small book club like this while excluding a 1,000 member church, since “a ten-member book club is equal to a ten-member church for purposes of parking burdens on a street, but unequal to a 1,000 member church.”

The court held that where, as here, a city’s zoning ordinance appears on its face to be treating religious assemblies less well than other assemblies and institutions, the burden shifts to the city “to show that the treatment received by the church should not be deemed unequal.” Here, the city claimed that it was excluding the church but not other assemblies because it sought to create a lively entertainment district. But the court noted that “many of the uses permitted as of right would have the same practical effect as a church of blighting a potential block of bars and nightclubs.” Thus, the court found, the city was treating the church unequally, and had violated the equal terms provision.

The court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings on damages, holding that monetary damages are available under RLUIPA. The court noted that while the Supreme Court recently held in Sossamon v. Texas (2011) that states may not be sued for damages under RLUIPA because of Eleventh Amendment concerns, municipalities still may be sued, since the Eleventh Amendment’s bar on damage actions against states does not apply to them.

The Civil Rights Division is charged with enforcing RLUIPA. On September 22, 2010, the Department of Justice marked the 10th Anniversary of this important law by releasing a report surveying the first ten years of RLUIPA enforcement, and issuing policy guidance to help citizens and local officials understand their rights and obligations under RLUIPA. Additional information about the Division's RLUIPA land use cases may be found at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage.

Jewish Congregation Wins Right to Locate in Los Angeles Neighborhood

Concluding a zoning dispute dating back to the 1990’s, a federal district court on July 11 ruled that RLUIPA required the City of Los Angeles to permit a small Jewish congregation to hold services in a home in the city’s Hancock Park neighborhood. The United States District Court for the Central District of California held in Congregation Etz Chaim v. City of Los Angeles that the city’s refusal to allow the congregation to hold services violated RLUIPA by treating secular assemblies better than the congregation in the zoning district, and by imposing a substantial burden on the congregation’s religious exercise without adequate justification. The Justice Department filed a statement of interest with the court on April 28, 2011, setting forth the United States’ position that the city’s actions violated RLUIPA.

Congregation Etz Chaim involves the longstanding efforts of members of small Hasidic Jewish sect to gather for worship in a house in Hancock Park. The congregation added a RLUIPA claim to its 1997 lawsuit shortly after RLUIPA’s passage in 2000. In fact, the congregation’s rabbi testified before Congress when it was considering the need for RLUIPA. The parties settled in 2001, but the settlement was later struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2009, the City again denied the congregation a permit that would have allowed it to operate.

In its July 11 order granting summary judgment for the congregation, the court quoted the United States’ statement of interest at length. The court found that the city had imposed a substantial burden on the congregation’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA. In doing so, the court relied on the United States’ argument that “the Congregation has provided ample evidence that many of its congregants would be physically unable to walk farther to another location as required by their religion.” The court also rejected the City’s argument that its actions were narrowly tailored to address its compelling governmental interest in maintaining the residential nature of the neighborhood, because the City previously had allowed numerous other nonreligious uses in the neighborhood. Similarly, the court found that the City’s parking and traffic concerns did not constitute a narrowly tailored compelling government interest because the City had not shown that such traffic or parking concerns actually existed or that they could not be mitigated.

The court also agreed with the United States that the City violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” section. The court found that a tennis club, private schools, and the British consulate all had either been granted permits to hold gatherings, or had been permitted to hold gatherings without permits, and the congregation must be treated similarly. The court explicitly rejected the city’s argument that some of these secular uses had been permitted for decades, and therefore they were not proper entities to which to compare the congregation. The court agreed with the United States that “one of the stated purposes of RLUIPA was to prevent discriminating against new religious entities in favor of already established religious and nonreligious entities.” The court order required the city to issue the necessary permit, and enjoined it from interfering with the congregation’s religious use of the property.

The United States filed a separate statement of interest earlier in the case, addressing the city’s argument that the RLUIPA claims were not properly before the court. The court rejected that argument earlier this year, as discussed in Volume 45 of Religious Freedom in Focus.

Constitutionality of RLUIPA Upheld in Connecticut Synagogue Case

On June 20, a federal court in Connecticut upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA in a suit brought by an Orthodox Jewish group seeking to locate in the Borough of Litchfield. The court rejected Litchfield’s argument that RLUIPA exceeded Congress’s constitutionally delegated powers and violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The United States intervened in the case, Chabad Lubavitch v. Borough of Litchfield, to defend RLUIPA’s constitutionality.

As the United States argued in its brief, RLUIPA’s land use provisions were enacted in 2000 “in response to a record of widespread state and local discrimination against religious institutions in the zoning context. In evaluating the need for legislation, Congress heard testimony in nine separate hearings over three years, which addressed in great detail both the need for legislation and the scope of Congressional power to enact such legislation.”

RLUIPA includes a provision barring imposition of a substantial burden on religious exercise without compelling justification, a provision barring discrimination against particular religions, a provision requiring treatment of religious assemblies on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies, and a bar on unreasonably or totally excluding religious uses from a jurisdiction.

Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish organization, sought zoning approval to expand an old house in a historic district in Litchfield to use as a religious center. After permission was denied, Chabad filed suit under RLUIPA in September 2009, claiming the denial violated the substantial burden, equal terms, and nondiscrimination provisions of the Act because its current space was inadequate to serve its religious needs and because Litchfield had previously approved the expansion of secular facilities and churches of equal or greater size in the historic district. Litchfield moved to dismiss the case on January 25, 2011, arguing that Congress exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment when it enacted RLUIPA. Litchfield also argued that RLUIPA violated the Establishment Clause and the separation of powers.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut agreed with the United States that RLUIPA was fully constitutional. First, the court held that RLUIPA, as applied in this case, falls squarely within Congress’s power to regulate commerce. The addition sought by Chabad would be 20,000 square feet, and such a commercial building construction project “necessarily affects interstate commerce.” The court also found that Litchfield’s separation of powers argument was misplaced, in light of Congress’s recognized authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Turning to the Establishment Clause, the court held that Litchfield’s arguments were “easily disposed of.” Litchfield claimed that the “equal terms” section of RLUIPA amounted to unconstitutional favoritism for religious uses. However, the court concluded that RLUIPA’s mandate of nondiscrimination between secular and religious uses simply prevents discrimination against religious entities and “alleviate[s] significant governmental interference with the ability of religious organizations to define and carry out their religious missions.”

Guilty Plea in Attack on Sikh Man in Odessa, Texas

On May 27, Doug Wilson Renshaw pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for an assault on a Sikh college student who was working for a pizza delivery service in Odessa, Texas. Renshaw admitted that he assaulted the victim on June 6, 2009, after the victim delivered a pizza to Renshaw and others at an Odessa apartment complex’s swimming pool.

Renshaw made offensive remarks to the Sikh man, who wears a turban and beard, including calling him “Osama.” He then shoved him into the pool and repeatedly pushed him back into the pool as he tried to climb out. Sentencing is set for August 2, 2011.

Tennessee Court Dismisses Suit Against County That Allowed Mosque Project

A Tennessee state court judge on May 17 dismissed a challenge by Murfreesboro-area residents to Rutherford County’s granting of a permit for construction of a mosque.

The residents who brought the case had claimed that the county was wrong to treat the mosque as it would a church, contending that Islam is an ideology rather than a religion, and a mosque is not a religious assembly. The same court in November 2010, denied the neighbors a preliminary injunction. As reported in Volume 44, the United States filed a brief in the case demonstrating how all three branches of the federal government had consistently treated Islam as a religion, and that the county was obligated under RLUIPA to treat mosques as a category equal with churches.

In dismissing the suit, the Chancery Court flatly held: “That Islam is a religion has been proven in this case.” The court also noted: “That the county ordinance allows construction of a church or place of meeting within a residential planning zone as a matter of right in this case is further undisputed.”

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, stated when the brief was filed that “a mosque is quite plainly a place of worship, and the county rightly recognized that it had an obligation to treat mosques the same as churches, synagogues, or any other religious assemblies. This is not only common sense; it is required by federal law. The Justice Department is committed to protecting rights of Americans of all faiths to build places of worship.”

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of RLUIPA’s religious land use provisions may be found at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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