Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important stories on law and religion from around the web:

RLUIPA and compelling government interests

Well this is good news. An Anglican church in Jacksonville Beach has received permission to build a new church, over two rejections from the local planning board. A court found that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) the community had the right to build their church.

Controversy over building churches occurs much more often than one would think, at least to me. Many communities do not want them, and provide for zoning plans to exclude them (and, it is true, many other types of non-residential buildings) from residential zones. Although there is a healthy debate about whether this kind of zoning makes sense as a matter of planning, RLUIPA is directed at the particular issue of preventing discrimination against religious buildings and treating them differently from other kinds of structures.

The Church of Our Savior purchased plots of land on which to build their church. Although the town planning department approved the application, the planning commission rejected it, citing concerns unspecified in the opinion about the traffic and the “character” of the neighborhood. A further refinement of the proposed plan, including turning part of the plot into a public park, failed to satisfy the commission. The town promptly changed its zoning code to try to neutralize the church’s claim it was being treated unequally.

The court wrote a thorough opinion addressing the RLUIPA claims. Simply denying a church a permit to build, or to require changes to a building plan, do not “substantially burden” a religious group’s rights under RLUIPA. Land is finite and, as is taught in law school, each parcel is unique. Market conditions, and not government action, are often the cause of a religious group not getting the property it wishes. Accordingly, the Court rejected most of the church’s claims of RLUIPA violation as a general principle.

However, the Court upheld a RLUIPA claim, as applied to the church, finding that the planning commission had treated it unequally. The commission had recently approved a very similar application for a school, and could not, to the Court’s satisfaction, articulate a “compelling government interest” that justified a full rejection of the Church’s plan. The commission asserted an interest in “preserving the character and safety of its residential neighborhoods through enforcement of its zoning regulations …. Even assuming that this constitutes a compelling government interest under RLUIPA, the Court finds that a blanket denial of the Church’s application was not narrowly tailored to further that interest.”

This seems like the right result.  Since the church location was near a large street and an amusement park, it is difficult to see how their parking spaces and 200-person church would affect the “character” of the neighborhood. What seems to have (rightly) bothered the court is the sudden change in the zoning code and its obvious unequal treatment of the church.  This kind of last-minute objection and inarticulate “character” assertions are exactly the kind of arguments RLUIPA holds up to scrutiny, but one can’t help but wonder how many times they prevail.

Holt v. Hobbs Podcast

Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.

 

When Doesn’t a Religious Accommodation “Detrimentally Affect Others”? And a Few Other Holt v. Hobbs Thoughts

Not too much to add to Rick Garnett’s analysis of Holt v. Hobbs. A short and precise opinion from Justice Alito. Here are just a few other questions and comments about the opinion and concurrences:

1. Rick quotes Justice Ginsburg’s one-paragraph concurrence, which states that she only joins the Court’s opinion “on th[e] understanding” that the accommodation here “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.” I guess she felt she had to use the occasion to say something pejorative about Hobby Lobby, which she also quotes. It seems she has bought the line pressed by those who claim that the Establishment Clause prohibits third-party burdens, yet she articulates the standard that they champion rather expansively. There may be a big difference between arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that impose “significant burdens on identifiable third parties” (if memory serves, this was the standard favored by academic defenders of this argument) and arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that “detrimentally affect” anybody who doesn’t share the claimant’s religious beliefs. I don’t believe the former is a correct reading of the Establishment Clause. But the latter formulation seems a good deal broader. What constitutes a “detrimental effect” under that approach? Might symbolic harms count? I don’t see why they wouldn’t. And as Justice Alito points out, Arkansas made no argument that an exemption was not feasible as a matter of cost or other resources (“the Department has not argued that denying a petitioner an exemption is necessary to further a compelling interest in cost control or program administration”). Had the Department made an argument about cost control (with evidence, which was seemingly in short supply on its side), would any evidence of increased cost (no matter how small) not only been enough to find against the claimant as a RLUIPA matter, but actually have triggered an Establishment Clause violation had the prison accommodated the inmate? Suppose I am a prison inmate who thinks 1/2 inch beards are beautiful as a fashion statement, or because I come from a long line of bearded ancestors and it is important to me to observe the tradition (not so far from the truth in my case, other than the bit about being a prison inmate). Am I not “detrimentally affected” by the inequality of treatment that results from Holt’s accommodation, but not mine? Surely I am. It seems to me that this sort of standard, as well as its more careful academic progenitor, strikes at the heart of these religious accommodation statutes.

2. Following from that point, the heart of these statutes (as Rick also notes) is to provide “very broad protection for religious liberty” or “expansive protection for religious liberty,” as the Court says right at the start of the opinion. This case was an easy one according to that standard, even with a thumb on the scale of deference toward prison administrators, which the Court reaffirms (it rejects “unquestioning deference” but it acknowledges the “respect” that is due the prison administrators’ “expertise”). Should not Hobby Lobby, in which there was no such presumptive deference or “respect” accorded to the government, also have been an easy case according to that standard? Should it at least have been as easy, in light of the absence of deference toward the government in the latter? And yet Holt was unanimous while Hobby Lobby split 5-4.

3. The breadth of protection for religious freedom contemplated by the statutes (RFRA and RLUIPA) and affirmed by the Court was notable, but so was the rigor with which the least restrictive means portion of the analysis was applied. In Holt, the prison argued that its concerns about the shaving of facial hair and escape were unique because of the particular sort of prison it operated, and that its rule was therefore the least restrictive means of securing against the possibility of escape. But the Court rejected that argument for the simple reason that the prison had not done enough to distinguish itself from other prisons that allow facial hair and that had managed these concerns. Other prisons, that is, whose situation was analogous to the Arkansas prison (even if not identical) used less restrictive means to achieve their security interests. The Court looked to the variety of less restrictive means on offer out there in the national universe, and found that the Department should have used one or more of those. This is perhaps a useful elaboration of the least restrictive means test. Unless the government can prove that its burden is truly unique, the Court will look to analogous (even if not identical) solutions to similar problems reached by other governmental entities. If those other solutions seem to have worked without an imposition on religious freedom, then the government has not used the least restrictive means.

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