Freedom of religion is one of the most revered and significant rights in the United States. The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The federal government enacted several laws that protect religious freedom including the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The Purpose of the Act
Congress wanted to address the need for expanded free exercise protections in two distinct areas: land use laws and persons in government custody.
The RLUIPA protects the ability of religious institutions to exercise their purpose without restriction and to let their members apply their religious beliefs through the construction and use of property for religious purposes. In passing this law, Congress found that the right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the free exercise of religion. Religious assemblies cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements.
The Act was intended to address problems that diverse religious communities face. In enacting this legislation, Congress was extremely concerned with Christian congregations with members that are mostly ethnic and/or racial minorities and minority faiths because these groups are often the targets of zoning conflicts.
Religious assemblies, especially, new, small, or unfamiliar ones, may be illegally discriminated against on the face of zoning codes and also in the highly individualized and discretionary processes of land use regulation.
The other purpose of RLUIPA is to protect the right to religious exercise for institutionalized persons including prisoners. Because institutionalized persons were frequently denied the chance to practice their religion (even when such practices would not have negatively impacted the institution), the legislatures wanted to help ensure that they had ample opportunities to do so. This is true not only based on the goal of extended free exercise rights, but there are also public policy incentives as well such as the connection between faith and worship and rehabilitation.
The Land Use Provisions of the RLUIPA
RLUIPA prohibits zoning and land marking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches and other religious assemblies or institutions absent the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. This prohibition applies in any situation where:
The provisions can apply to churches, synagogues, temples, religious schools, and to individuals holding prayer meetings and studies in their homes.
The Institutionalized Persons Provisions of the RLUIPA
RLUIPA's institutionalized persons provisions are meant to keep officials from imposing arbitrary restrictions on religious exercise. Prisoners lose certain rights conditioned on their incarceration, but they retain certain First Amendment rights which are not inconsistent with their inmate status. The Act prohibits regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of persons confined to institutions. The provision provides that the ban on these regulations applies even if the regulation imposing the burden is a rule of general applicability, a rule that applies neutrally to all parties.
Regulations that are considered to a "substantial burden" are only permitted if the government can meet a certain standard: The regulation must be the least restrictive way to achieve the compelling interest.
For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prison's no-beard policy violated the First Amendment. In the case, a prisoner had converted to Islam and wanted to grow a beard based on his religion beliefs. This was contrary to the prison's no beard policy which had no religious exception; the policy only made an exception for prisoners with skin conditions.
The prison failed to show that the no beard policy was the least restrictive way to further their goals of identifying prisoners and preventing prisoners from hiding contraband. Therefore, the policy violated the prisoner's rights under RLUIPA.
Protect Your First Amendment Rights
Are you part of a religious congregation that is being discriminated against through zoning laws? Are you confined, and the institution is unwilling to make accommodations for your religious needs? If you suspect that your rights under RLUIPA have been violated, then you should talk to an experienced attorney about protecting your rights.
Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.