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).