Recently, the Department of Justice reported that it has closed its investigation into whether the City of Coconut Creek’s zoning code violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision by treating secular assembly uses better than religious uses. Below is the DOJ’s full press release:
On December 4, the Department of Justice closed its investigation of the City of Coconut Creek, Florida under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the City changed its zoning code to treat houses of worship equally with nonreligious assemblies.
The Department opened an investigation in 2016 into the City’s treatment of churches and other houses of worship in its zoning code. At the time, nonreligious assemblies such as dance and martial arts studios, fitness clubs, and childcare facilities were allowed to operate as of right in business districts, while houses of worship in these districts were required to obtain special land use permits to operate.
Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA states that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” This provision, according to lead sponsors Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, was included in RLUIPA because “[z]oning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meetings halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. . . . Churches have been denied the right to meet in rented storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters and skating rinks—in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.” RLUIPA authorizes the Department of Justice to bring suits to enforce the law’s provision, in addition to authorizing affected organizations and individuals to file their own suits.
After the Department opened its investigation, the City of Coconut Creek proposed amending its zoning laws. In November this year, the City completed the process of amending its ordinance to equalize treatment of houses of worship and nonreligious assemblies. In response to the ordinance changes, the Department closed its investigation.
In June 2018, the Department of Justice launched the Place to Worship Initiative to provide public education, training, and enhanced enforcement of RLUIPA. Further information is available on the Initiative homepage, www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship, or on the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section RLUIPA page.