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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against the Village of Walthill, Nebraska, for Restrictions on Non-Denominational Christian Church Trying to Build a Place of Worship

The Justice Department today announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the Village of Walthill, Nebraska, alleging that the Village violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying Light of the World Gospel Ministries, a non-denominational, multi-ethnic Christian congregation, a permit to construct a new church in the Village. The suit alleges that the Village imposed a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise without adequate justification and treated the church worse than comparable nonreligious assemblies and institutions.

“Treating places of worship less favorably than nonreligious assemblies is unlawful discrimination against religious exercise,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that governments do not deny congregations their federally protected right to exercise their faith through construction of places of worship.”

“Walthill is obligated to treat religious assemblies and institutions on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions,” said Joe Kelly, United States Attorney for the District of Nebraska. “This complaint reflects our commitment to protect the religious liberties of all people in this district.” 

The complaint, filed in the District of Nebraska, alleges that on Sept. 13, 2017, the Village of Walthill denied Light of the World’s application for a special use permit to construct a church on property it owns in a commercial district in downtown Walthill. During the same period, the Village approved construction of nonreligious places of assembly in the district, including a library and an education center.

The complaint alleges that the Village’s denial of Light of the World’s application for a special use permit to construct a church violates a provision of RLUIPA, known as the “equal terms” provision, that requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies. The suit also alleges that the Village’s actions imposed a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise in violation of another provision of the Act.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions protecting the rights of places of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.

Updated February 24, 2020