The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), a federal statute enacted to safeguard religious freedoms from governmental interference, has been broadly and forcefully condemned by academics. In the decade since RLUIPA was passed, scholars have repeatedly denounced the statute as a tool that religious individuals and organizations may use to thwart municipal zoning plans and to undermine local communities’ land use needs. However, in criticizing RLUIPA, few authors have examined the statute’s real effects. Legal academia has largely ignored the growing body of case law that highlights the statute’s ineffectiveness and demonstrates that RLUIPA often fails to benefit or significantly privilege religious groups.
This Comment aims to fill this scholarly gap by arguing that despite the ongoing outcry against RLUIPA’s potential and perceived consequences, the statute has often failed to benefit religious groups and has, in many cases, actually worked a detriment to these groups. I question the common assumption that RLUIPA has dramatically empowered religious plaintiffs in battles against local land use authorities. By closely examining dozens of federal and state cases involving RLUIPA causes of action, I illustrate that RLUIPA claims have not typically fared well in court. Though RLUIPA demands strict judicial scrutiny of land use decisions that impose a substantial burden on religious organizations and requires that religious and secular entities be treated similarly in the zoning process, I examine ways courts have avoided the application of strict scrutiny and have made it very challenging for religious entities to show that secular land users have been treated more favorably.
Moreover, despite RLUIPA’s reputation as an unconditional boon to religious land users, this Comment points out that religious litigants also incur substantial costs when raising RLUIPA claims. I analyze three of these costs: (1) litigation costs, (2) reliance costs, and (3) reputational costs, and conclude that in some instances, RLUIPA has not merely failed to alleviate the purported burdens on religious land users but has actually saddled religious entities with greater burdens incurred in the pursuit of costly court cases and in the waging of protracted battles with neighbors and community officials.