Features

'Blunderbuss' stop

National

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

Another pivotal court case involving religious freedom appears headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. California federal judge Stephen Wilson last month declared unconstitutional the part of a law enacted by Congress in 2000 to help churches and other religious groups overcome local government land-use restrictions. He called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) "a blunderbuss of a remedy."

The case before him pitted the Elsinore Christian Center against the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif. The church sued after the city denied it a permit to move into a building that formerly housed a grocery store. The city said it wanted to keep the property on the tax rolls and preserve its use as a food store in a neighborhood that has no other such stores.

It was the first time RLUIPA was struck down by a federal judge, legal observers say. The law is at the heart of dozens of land-use suits now in the courts. Under RLUIPA, governments must exempt religious groups from the most restrictive tests, or show that zoning laws or other regulations serve a compelling government interest.

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For now, Judge Wilson's decision means that churches in the greater Los Angeles area can't cite RLUIPA in land-use disputes. But the ruling likely will have ripple effects in other jurisdictions across the country. Several religious-rights advocacy groups say they will appeal.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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