When is a Zoning Amendment a “Substantial Burden” under RLUIPA? The Fourth Circuit Speaks

By: Andrew McRoberts. This was posted Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

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On January 31, 2013, the Fourth C ircuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in the case of Bethel World Outreach Ministries of Montgomery County v. Montgomery County Council.

In this opinion, the Fourth Circuit clarified the standard the courts should apply when a claim is made under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq., for a “substantial burden ” on a religious organization’s free exercise of religion.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the church’s “substantial burden claim” citing two errors by the lower court, but affirmed its grant of summary judgment on other RLUIPA and constitutional claims.

First, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in applying the test for institutionalized persons, rather than a lower standard used by its sister circuits for land use cases.  Specifically, a claimant can succeed in its claim that a land use action violated the “substantial burden” test by “establishing that a government regulation puts substantial burden on it to change its behavior.”  In so holding, the Fourth Circuit joined the 7th, 9th and 11th Circuits.

Second, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in its application of the “substantial burden” standard of RLUIPA by requiring that the land use regulation “target” its religious beliefs or practices.  While that is required under the constitutional standard for free exercise, the Fourth Circuit held, RLUIPA does not contain any such requirement.  If it did, the Court reasoned, a claimant could never prevail as the religious organization could simply locate elsewhere, making the “substantial burden” requirement superfluous.

Applying this clarified “substantial burden” standard, the Fourth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment to the county in part, because:

1.  The land use regulation in question prohibited any church structure at all on the property,

2.  The church had presented evidence was sufficient to raise a question of material fact as to whether the church purchased the  property under a reasonable belief (at the time) that it could build a church,

3.  The church had presented considerable evidence that its current facilities were inadequate to serve its worship needs, and

4.  The court had not presented evidence that a less-restrictive means could not serve its interest in “preserving agricultural land, water quality, and open space and managing traffic and noise in the rural density transfer zone,” which the Fourth Circuit assumed without deciding was a compelling interest.

Along with this significant clarification of the “substantial burden” provision of RLUIPA, the Fourth Circuit also affirmed the summary judgment granted to Montgomery County by the District Court of Maryland in many respects, including claims under RLUIPA for religious discrimination (the zoning ordinance was facially neutral as it applied to all institutional uses in a rural preserve area of the county), under RLUIPA’s “unreasonable limitation” provision (the law merely prohibits unreasonable limitations in entire county, and this was one area only), and under the Maryland and U.S. Constitutions’ free exercise and equal protection (under the deferential rational basis test, the zoning ordinance in question served a legitimate public purpose and bore a rational basis to it).

Extensive information is available on RLUIPA from the U.S. Department of Justice at its website here.

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