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Religious Liberty Year In Review

Written by Noel Sterett on December 29, 2021 Category: Firm News

The week between Christmas and New Year’s provides a moment to slow down and reflect on the year that has come and gone. While harried lawyers can miss this moment in the rush to turn the calendar over and start on next year’s work, reflection is necessary for both personal and professional growth. Reflection can also give rise to gratitude for the victories won and the progress made. Here is a list of just some of the religious liberty matters for which I am thankful:

  1. Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church v. City of St. Pete Beach, FL

In January, we obtained a federal court order protecting the church’s right to keep its parking lot open to the public. The church considers its parking lot to be a God-given resource that it can use to show “biblically-based hospitality.” Due to its proximity to the beach, the free parking attracts people to the church and affords the church a unique opportunity to serve the community. After the City fined the church for not restricting its parking lot to those with a “legitimate church purpose,” we filed suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and won. The City also agreed to pay the church’s reasonable attorney fees.

  1. The Church at Jackson v. Hinds County, MS

The church had acquired a six-acre parcel of property located in an Agricultural District of Hinds County, MS, with the intention of using the property for religious assembly, prayer, and worship. After county officials found out the church wanted to meet on the property, the church was told it needed to have the property rezoned to a special use district. The church then applied to have the property rezoned, only to have its application ultimately denied on April 19, 2021–after months of waiting and multiple hearings.

Under the County Zoning Ordinance, several nonreligious assembly uses, such as gymnasiums and arenas, are allowed to locate in the Agricultural District as of right, while religious assembly uses, such as churches, mosques and synagogues, are not allowed to locate there without obtaining special approval. We filed suit challenging these unequal terms under RLUIPA and obtained a court order securing the Church’s right to assemble for worship on its property.

Every year, many religious groups across the country suffer adverse zoning decisions and do not realize that there is a federal law that gives them substantial rights. No church in this country should have to fight for its right to gather for worship on land where other non-religious assemblies are freely allowed.

  1. Sandra Rojas, LPN v. Winnebago County, IL

Sandra Rojas is a pediatric nurse who worked for the Winnebago County Health Department for 18 years. She went into pediatrics to make children’s lives better. In 2016, nurse Rojas was told she could no longer keep at her job at the county’s health clinic if she was not willing take on new job duties, which included providing abortion referrals and abortifacients. Rojas exercised her rights under the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which protects a nurse’s right to not participate in medical services which violate her conscience.

After years of litigation, nurse Rojas’s case finally proceeded to trial in early 2021. After a three-day bench trial, the Court ultimately ruled for nurse Rojas in October. Nurse Rojas’s case stands as a seminal case under the Health Care Right of Conscience Act and is a win for all health care professionals throughout Illinois.

  1. Numerous Religious Liberty Matters Resolved Out of Court

While the lawsuits are often what make the headlines, we are just as thankful for all those religious liberty matters we were able to resolve out of court. In 2021, the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich helped many congregations exercise their religious freedom to leave their denomination and keep their properties. We also helped other religious institutions address a variety of legal issues which threatened their ability to accomplish their noble missions.

With 2021 now behind us, we look forward to continuing to help religious institutions across the country secure their religious land use rights, exercise their religious freedoms, and accomplish their noble missions.

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