Justice Department Files Statement of Interest in Michigan Church Religious Land Use Case
The Justice Department today filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan supporting a church’s claims that the City of St. Ignace, Michigan, violated its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) by barring it from locating a church and coffee shop in the City’s downtown zoning district.
“Religious groups in America have the fundamental constitutional right to use land for religious exercise, free from discriminatory restrictions, and to be treated on equal terms with nonreligious groups,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal civil rights laws protecting religious freedom so that communities across the country can establish and grow their places of worship.”
“My office is pleased to take action to help protect these fundamental rights and to ensure that local zoning actions and ordinances that violate the law by failing to treat individuals and religious institutions on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions will not stand,”said Andrew B. Birge, United States Attorney for the Western District of Michigan.
The case, Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. Ignace, involves a congregation that sought to purchase property in the City’s downtown General Business District to locate a church that would include outreach activities, including a nonprofit coffee shop. After the City denied approval, the church filed a lawsuit, alleging that the City barred it from operating in the business district even though the City permits other similarly situated secular assembly uses to operate in the district, including municipal buildings, assembly halls, and theaters.
The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that Hope Lutheran Church has properly stated a claim under RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision, and that the City’s justifications for barring churches from the business district, such as tax generation and the impact of Michigan’s law limiting the distance between churches and liquor-serving establishments, are not valid bases under RLUIPA to treat churches less favorably than similarly situated secular assemblies.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. Last year, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focusses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of 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 U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or on the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website.