The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, known as “RLUIPA,” is a federal civil rights law that protects individuals and religious assemblies and institutions from discriminatory and unduly burdensome land use regulations. Among several key parts of the statute, RLUIPA contains an “equal terms” provision that prohibits any government entity from imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on “less than equal terms” with a nonreligious assembly or institution. The equal terms provision seeks to address the problem of a local zoning ordinance, either facially or as applied, excluding places of worship where secular assemblies are allowed.
In a recent RLUIPA decision, Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship v. County of Riverside, __ F.3d __ (2019), a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a facial challenge to a rezoning ordinance County of Riverside enacted that removed religious assemblies from the list of permitted uses in the County’s “Citrus-Vineyard” zoning district where the church is located. When the church bought its first property, in 1996, the Citrus-Vineyard zoning district allowed churches and other places of worship with the approval of a conditional use permit. But for reasons unexplained in the opinion the County amended the ordinance in 1999, removing religious assemblies from the list of conditionally permitted uses and rendering the church a legal noncomforming use.
The church subsequently bought a second parcel in 2009, apparently unaware of the County’s zoning change a decade earlier, and hoped to expand its facilities by building a larger sanctuary, a special occasion facility, an open-air wedding venue, a church administration building, and a family residence. After realizing the impact of the zoning change, however, the church asked the County to amend the ordinance again to include religious assemblies as a permitted or conditionally permitted use.
Failing to obtain the requested rezoning for various reasons, the church brought a facial challenge alleging that the County violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision by prohibiting religious assemblies in the Citrus-Vineyard zone but permitting “special occasion facilities, hotels, resorts, golf courses, clustered residential subdivisions, professional culinary academy, bed and breakfasts, wineries, wine club activities, wine club events, Winegrowers Trade Association Events, gift sales, country inns, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, hotels, spas, and cooking schools.” In short, Calvary Chapel claimed its proposed religious use was not permitted or conditionally permitted by any of those use categories.
Because the church’s challenge was facial and not as applied, the Ninth Circuit considered only the text of the zoning ordinance, not its application. And the Court readily recognized that on the face of the ordinance secular and religious places of assembly are treated the same in that both are conditionally permitted in the Citrus-Vineyard zone if they meet the requirements of a “special occasion facility,” which requires, among other things, that the facilities are used “for a specific period of time in return for compensation.” Churches and other houses of worship
are permitted in the Citrus-Vineyard zone if, at some point, they rent their facilities out in return for compensation, in addition to meeting the other zoning requirements. Nothing in the text of the ordinance prevents churches from holding regular worship services or other religious assemblies in their special occasion facilities.
The Court thus held that the church could pursue its project—including a wedding venue available for-rent—under the amended ordinance as a special occasion facility and that there is no equal terms violation. The more difficult consideration of the ordinance’s application is left for another day.