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Building Faith: Protecting Religious Freedom Through Land Use Laws

Written by Noel Sterett on November 8, 2019 Category: Firm News, Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights

Last night I was honored to speak on a panel hosted by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee, WI. The panel discussion was part of the United States Attorney General’s Place to Worship Initiative and was entitled “Building Faith: Protecting Religious Freedom Through Land Use Laws.” I was joined on the panel by my former client Pastor Dennis Virta of River Hills Church in Sauk City, WI, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Yun, and Milwaukee-area attorney Michael Dean (who assisted me as local counsel in a successful religious land use suit against Milwaukee in 2013).

The event was well attended. Nearly seventy people from a wide variety of faith groups were there to learn more about how the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects their places of worship and can help them overcome unjust land use regulations. I was able to speak about the many cases we have successfully litigated all across the country. My former client Pastor Dennis Virta was able to personally share about how I employed RLUIPA to help save his church. Pastor Virta’s church is now a thriving and contributing part of the Sauk City community.

Despite RLUIPA’s protections, religious institutions and assemblies are increasingly finding it difficult to secure land on which to operate or expand. Local governments are often opposed to “losing” property to religious groups because they are only focused on preserving their property tax revenue. In some communities, it is nearly impossible to start a new place of worship or expand. The heart of our work at Dalton & Tomich is to help religious institutions and assemblies better understand what they can do to overcome the land use and zoning obstacles which are standing in the way of their growth and development.

We appreciate all the Department of Justice is doing in and through its Place to Worship Initiative to raise awareness in this area. I want to thank United States Attorney Ryan Lee for inviting me to share about how we have successfully protected religious communities across the country both in and out of court. If you have additional questions regarding RLUIPA, please feel free to contact me.

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