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Churches have long faced challenges in zoning and local land use ordinances when looking to build.  Legal disputes have pitted the right of the Church to religious freedom against the right of the local community to regulate and/or restrict land use.  Now, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has issued a decision which has clarified and expanded the rights of churches in Maryland looking to build, and set a higher standard for counties looking to restrict church building through zoning and other land use ordinances.

The case is Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council.  Bethel Ministries worshipped in a church building with a capacity of 450 people.  Its weekly attendance had increased to 1,500, requiring it to hold four services.  The cramped Sunday schedule restricted altar calls, communion, and counseling after the meetings.  As a result, Bethel purchased a 119 acre property in Montgomery County, Maryland, on which it planned to build a 3,000 seat church.

The property was situated in a 93,000 acre area that the county had designated as an agricultural reserve.  The County Council denied Bethel’s access to public water and sewer service, and at the same time formally passed an amendment to its water and sewer plan prohibiting public water and sewer service to private institutional facilities in the zone where the church was to be built.

Bethel brought suit in Federal Court, for a declaration that the County had violated the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  The Federal law (that became effective in 2000) prohibits any land use regulation “that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of … a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that the imposition of the burden on that…assembly or institution is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”  The unresolved question was the definition of what is “a substantial burden” on a church sufficient to trigger the law.

The Federal District Court in Maryland took a limited view of the “substantial burden” test, and ruled for the County.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed.

The Fourth Circuit established a clearly stated definition of when RLUIPA applies: “A land-use regulation [such as a zoning ordinance or a water/sewer plan] that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise is one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise – including the use of real property for the purpose thereof … effectively impracticable.”

The case is significant because it did not define the standard in terms whether the land use ordinance infringed on the religious beliefs of the church or discriminated against a particular church or religion (a standard a church can almost never meet) – but rather whether the practical impact of the ordinance restricted the effective use of the land for religious purposes.  If the ordinance makes the use of the land impracticable for a religious use (that is makes it substantially harder to build an appropriate facility) then the law is triggered.

The case now goes back to the District Court where the burden will be on the County to prove that its zoning and land use plans are necessary to further a compelling government interest, and that the plans place are the lease restrictive means of furthering that interest.  The County maintains that its ordinances serve a public interest in preserving agricultural land, providing open space, managing traffic and noise.  The District Court now must determine if the restrictions it has placed on Bethel Ministries are the least restrictive means for achieving those ends.

This decision from the Fourth Circuit is a very positive one for churches, and the ultimate outcome is one to be watched.  The case is reported at 706 F.3d 548.

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