Building Faith: Protecting Religious Freedom Through Land Use Laws
For religious institutions and assemblies, having a place to gather for worship and to carry out religious activities is fundamental.
Knowing this, The School of Law partnered with Pitt Law, the US Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division to stimulate discussion. Panelists and guests enjoyed a deeply informative and at times moving conversation about how the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) affects local land use and zoning policies by carving out vital protections for faith communities.
Duquesne School of Law Assoc. Prof. Joseph Sabino Mistick moderated the conversation with panelists Ryan Lee from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Ira Karoll from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Pastor Harry Hoff from Hope Rising Church and Deborah Lawlor of Maser Consulting.
The introduction of the program was given by United States Attorney Scott W. Brady. Brady explained that RLUIPA's goal is to protect religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. According to the United States Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000, after hearing testimony that land use/zoning regulations by municipalities were often burdening the ability of religious congregations to exercise their faiths in violation of the Constitution.
Real World Impact
Pastor Hoff is the co-founder and lead pastor of Hope Rising Church in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Hope Rising was initially based in a warehouse in Penn Hills where it served the community with clothing distribution, counseling, a food bank, and worship services. After a few months, they were ordered to cease hosting worship services at the warehouse by their municipality in violation of their community zoning act.
"I was told that I couldn't talk about God in my building and that crushed me," said Pastor Harry Hoff, a victim of his municipality's discriminatory land use regulations, "RLUIPA was a blessing."
The organization filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania challenging the order under RLUIPA.
"Nobody in the church wants to sue their municipality, but I know I was robbed, I know my community was robbed," Pastor Hoff said to the audience, "We just wanted to love and take care of our community and when it was stripped away, it was heartbreaking." The Magistrate Judge recommended an injunction in favor of Hope Rising, and the District Court entered it. The case was resolved shortly after that.
Applying the Law
Discipline Leader for Planning Services for Maser Consulting, P.A., Deborah Lawlor, spoke about the importance of understanding RLUIPA from a planner's perspective and elaborated on the protections RLUIPA offers.
Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division trial attorney Ryan Lee offered different examples of cases across America that were won thanks to the protections of RLUIPA, including United States of America v. City of St. Anthony Village, Minnesota.
Asst. U.S. Attorney in the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania and Adj. Prof. from Pitt Law Ira Karoll expressed to lawyers in the audience that they should enforce RLUIPA and that he recommends, sensitivity training for avoiding and addressing related claims.
"Be fair and use common sense," Karoll said.
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