Urban Lawyer

Recent Developments in RLUIPA and Religious Land Use

by Daniel P. Dalton

Daniel Dalton is the co-founder and owner of Dalton & Tomich PLC, a law firm representing property owners in land use and zoning disputes throughout the United States. He wishes to thank Ms. Erin Cobane, University of Detroit Mercy Law School, J.D. Candidate 2017, for her assistance in preparing this article.


FROM THE TIME CONGRESS UNANIMOUSLY PASSED THE RELIGIOUS LAND USE AND INSTITUTIONALIZED PERSONS ACT (“RLUIPA”) IN 2000, in an effort to correct the constitutional infirmities of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RLUIPA has been constantly evolving. In 2016 and early 2017, the courts have further scrutinized RLUIPA addressing issues such as ripeness, standing, supplemental jurisdiction, land use regulations, substantial burden, equal terms, non-discrimination and attorney fees. Discussed below are some of the most important and influential developments that occurred during that period.

I. Justiciability Issues

A. Ripeness

In the continued evolution of RLUIPA jurisprudence, ripeness continues to be a contested issue, with many municipalities arguing that RLUIPA plaintiffs have not exhausted their remedies before bringing suit. The concept of ripeness is rooted in Article III’s case or controversy requirement.1 To satisfy the case or controversy requirement, the plaintiff must show that she has standing and that her claim is ripe.2 The ripeness doctrine is designed to prevent courts from “entangling [themselves] in abstract disagreements over-matters that are premature for review because injury is merely speculative and may never occur, depending on the final administrative resolution.”3 The doctrine defers federal review of claims until they have attained a more concrete and final form.4

The Second Circuit tackled the issue of RLUIPA ripeness in Sunrise Detox V v. City of White Plains.5 Sunrise Detox V sought to establish a facility for individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.6 Pursuant to the city’s zoning code, the proposed facility would have to qualify as a “community residence” or a “domiciliary care facility,” and be granted a special permit from the city’s Common Council.7 In June of 2012, plaintiff submitted its application for a special use permit to the city Department of Building.8 Having determined the application complete, the Department forwarded Sunrise’s proposal to the Common Council.9 From there, the application was deemed officially submitted and received, and was then forwarded to the Planning Board.10 The Planning Board unanimously recommended approval for a period of one year, finding that “the proposed community residence meets the special permit requirements.”11 However, public opposition to the facility mounted, with local residents arguing that the facility did not qualify as a community residence.12 The Department then issued a revised determination, stating that plaintiff ’s services were properly classified as crisis services, so that the closest appropriate zoning ordinance classification was Hospitals or Sanitaria — a use not permitted in plaintiff’s zoning district.13 Plaintiff then filed suit, alleging that the commissioner’s interpretation of “community residence” disparately impacted plaintiff and its prospective clients, and intentionally discriminated against Plaintiff ’s client base.14 On appeal, Plaintiff argued that application of the final decision requirement was inappropriate.15

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