Justice Department Files Statement of Interest in Religious Land Use Case Involving Oregon Church That Feeds People Who are Homeless or Hungry
The Justice Department today announced a settlement with Pittsfield Charter Township, Michigan, resolving allegations that the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) in denying zoning approval to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy (MIA) to build a school on a vacant parcel of land.
The settlement, which must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, resolves an October 2015 lawsuit between the United States and the township. A separate settlement resolving a similar lawsuit brought by MIA against the township has also been submitted to the court for approval.
The department’s complaint alleged that in October 2011, Pittsfield Charter Township imposed a substantial burden on MIA’s exercise of religion when it refused to grant its request for rezoning to allow MIA to build a new school on a vacant parcel of land in the township. MIA, a pre-K through grade 12 school currently located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sought to build a new facility in Pittsfield because it had outgrown its current location.
As part of the settlement, the township has agreed to permit MIA to construct a school on the vacant parcel of land, to treat the school and all other religious groups equally and to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices. The township also agreed that its leaders and various township employees will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the county will report periodically to the Justice Department. In the separate settlement between MIA and the township, Pittsfield agreed to pay $1.7 million to resolve MIA’s claims for damages and attorney’s fees caused by the 2011 denial and the resulting delay in construction of the school.
“Federal law protects the religious beliefs, freedoms and practices of all communities, including the right to build religious institutions free from unlawful and unfair barriers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This agreement will allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build the facility it needs to serve its members and contribute to the community of Pittsfield.”
“The law prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise unless there is a compelling government interest and the government uses the least restrictive means of achieving that interest,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan. “We filed this lawsuit to protect the right of all Americans to practice their religion and receive the religious instruction and education of their choice. This settlement will permit the families of the Michigan Islamic Academy to exercise the same rights as all Americans.”
The case was brought by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Michigan.
RLUIPA prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning decisions. People who believe they were subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning may contact the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at 1-800-896-7743. More information about RLUIPA, including a report on the department’s enforcement, may be found at www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.