Earlier this year, we reported on the lawsuit filed by Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River, Inc. against the Township of Toms River, New Jersey (read prior post here).  The Center challenges the Township’s decision that it must obtain a variance to continue its small religious gatherings at the home of Rabbi Moshe Gourarie.  Rabbi Gourarie received eight zoning violations in October 2014 for using his home in this way.

The Center claims that while the Rabbi’s residence is primarily used as a home, it is also used for small religious gatherings on Saturdays (10 to 15 people) and to host various other religious events (averaging 10 people).  The Township views the use as a “house of worship,” which is not allowed as of right or conditionally in the subject zoning district, and rejected the Center’s argument that the use was akin to a clergy residence or parsonage which reportedly must be allowed in any zone.

Now, the United States Department of Justice has informed the Township’s mayor that it is investigating the Township’s zoning code and handling of the controversy as possibly violating RLUIPA.  The DOJ has stated that its investigation is “preliminary in nature” and that it has “not made any determination as to whether there has been a violation of RLUIPA by the Township.”  The DOJ often investigates the text of zoning codes and actions of land use agencies enforcing the codes for compliance with RLUIPA.  The RLUIPA statute even authorizes the DOJ to sue local governments it believes have violated the statute:

The United States may bring an action for injunctive or declaratory relief to enforce compliance with this chapter. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to deny, impair, or otherwise affect any right or authority of the Attorney General, the United States, or any agency, officer, or employee of the United States, acting under any law other than this subsection, to institute or intervene in any proceeding.

On the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA in 2010, the DOJ reported that it had:

  • Opened 51 RLUIPA investigations, including seven so far in 2010;
  • Filed seven RLUIPA lawsuits involving land use;
  • Filed 10 amicus briefs in private cases to inform the court about its interpretation of the law’s provisions; and
  • Intervened in private lawsuits to defend the constitutionality of RLUIPA in 30 land-use cases.

The numbers are even greater now, but the DOJ has not issued a report since its 2010 report (available here).

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.