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.
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.