Recalling RLUIPA


“Religious freedom is a bedrock principle in our nation,” said former Senator Edward Kennedy to Congress on July 13, 2000.  These words were spoken less than a month before the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed before both the United States Senate and House of Representatives in a unanimous vote. Six weeks later President Clinton signed the bill creating a new federal law.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act states that having a place to meet for worship is an integral part of the exercise of religious freedom. The idea that owning property is essential to practicing one’s faith may seem obvious, simply a clause to the First Amendment right for religious assembly, but until 2000 no legislation supported the theoretical concept of religious freedom and practical implications of land use. This meant the courts were widely divided over whether the right to use a building for worship was a constitutional right.

The only statutory protection churches and religious organizations had against municipalities and exclusionary codes prone to zone them out of a specific city was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, often considered to be a vague statement supporting religious groups. In 1997, Religious Freedom Restoration Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores leaving religious organizations and congregations without federal protection for the use of land to practice their faith.

Faithful and without protection

But what seemed to be a devastating blow to religious organizations and congregations became a chance for lawmakers to bring greater religious protection to churches nationwide.

“It created the opportunity for us to prepare a specific law that required cities to treat churches equally as other assembly uses and to create a provision that said every municipality must have a zone where churches are freely allowed,” explained attorney John Mauck.

After the Supreme Court overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, lawyers and religious leaders gathered together in the fall of 1997 to being the process of creating a more comprehensive law to protect congregations and religious groups from being zoned out of their cities. With Mauck’s years of experience in real estate and church zoning disputes, his land use knowledge was crucial in drafting the bill. Mauck suggested the law include equal treatment for churches and inclusion in municipalities’ zoning codes, moving beyond RFRA’s general statement of religious liberty. Doug Laycock, currently professor of law at the University of Virginia wrote the bill, called the Religious Liberty Protection Act. The bill went before the House of Representatives, and advocates for the bill presented testimonies before the House of Representatives subcommittee in early 1998.

In March, Mauck testified before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee, sharing his experience as a zoning attorney for churches. Examples of religious land use problems included churches being zoned out of downtown Chicago and extreme re-zoning taking place to keep churches out of certain parts of the city.

“These laws can be abused…in approximately half of all city ordinances that I have read…approximately half of the ordinances I see do not have any zone where a church can freely go,” Mauck stated before the subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee.   

After the hearings in 1998, the bill went up for a vote in the House the following summer and a 306-118 vote from the House put the Religious Liberty Protection Act into a perfect position to go before the Senate.  

A call to prayer

After a series of hearings and the vote in the House during the summer of 1999, the Religious Liberty Protection Act stalled in the Senate after receiving opposition from both gay rights groups and municipalities with the support of Senator Daniel Moynihan of New York.

In early 2000, the chairman of C.L.U.B., Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, Theodore Wilkinson organized prayer meetings in three inner-city churches to intercede for the bill to move out of the Senate. So in April, May and June, on the third Wednesday of each month, Christians in Chicago came together and prayed.

“Those meetings were amazing because there were no other lawyers in attendance, basically blue-collar, not highly educated people who didn’t know the law,” recalls Mauck, “but they prayed with fervency to God to pass the federal law protecting the religious freedom of churches.”

Miraculous use of land 

While the bill stalled in the Senate during 1999 and early 2000 Mauck’s participation in the bill ceased. But after reading an editorial in The New York Times in the summer opposing the “Religious Land Use Act” he called up some fellow Christian Legal Society members who had been lobbying for the bill to find out the status of the legislation he knew as the Religious Liberty Protection Act.

The attorneys he spoke to were ecstatic, telling Mauck a miracle had happened—the bill providing religious groups the right to land use had finally passed.

The Religious Liberty Protection Act had been renamed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to reduce the scope to include only religious land use and prisoner rights. Prominent members of Senate from both political parties began to lobby for RLUIPA—both eliminating opposition and gaining support for the bill. Edward Kennedy, one of the most liberal members of the Senate and Orrin Hatch, one of the most conservative members of the Senate were the two major sponsors of the bill making it a bipartisan effort. Senator Moynihan and the municipalities stopped their opposition to allow the bill to proceed around the same time.

Christian Legal Society attorneys lobbying for the bill explained that their Senate sponsor presented the motion to the Senate in July believing it would go to joint committee for further hearings and more delays, but it immediately received unanimous approval.

Then the approved bill was taken to the House joint committee the same day by a runner—just before the government was scheduled to recess for the summer. It received unanimous approval by voice-vote and within a day RLUIPA became federal law.

Mauck & Baker’s bedrock

If religious freedom is a bedrock principle in our nation then the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized

Persons Act of 2000 has become Mauck & Baker’s own bedrock. Mauck & Baker’s origin aligns directly with RLUIPA’s passing in 2000—maybe not intentionally but Mauck & Baker’s attorneys find spiritual significance in the timing of the two events.

 “One of God’s highest priorities is that human beings hear the Gospel so they can choose whether to follow Jesus or not, and RLUIPA strongly helps believers forward God’s will in that area,” explains attorney Mauck.

The concept of religious freedom is made practical through RLUIPA, and for Mauck & Baker’s clients that concept is made reality. For churches and religious organizations RLUIPA represents their ability to flourish, establish themselves and live in harmony with their community both in the Chicago area and across the nation.

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