Religious School, Land Use, Zoning and RLUIPA Attorney | Dalton and Tomich


Dalton & Tomich provides the experience your religious school needs to overcome land use challenges.

You have a land us­e issue. You purchased land with the intention of using it for a religious school and the local government has denied you the ability to use the land for religious assembly due to zoning issues. What can you do?

If your religious school is seeking to expand its campus or add on to existing structures and you are facing opposition from the local planning commission, city council or other local governing body, you aren’t out of options. There are laws that may give you the right to use land for a religious school even if local entities are against the project.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects religious organizations like yours against discrimination in land use and zoning matters. Our specialty is helping religious groups exercise their rights under the law.

The religious land use team at the law firm Dalton & Tomich, PLC, led by experienced RLUIPA attorneys Daniel P. Dalton and Noel W. Sterett, has successfully defended the rights of schools, churches and other religious institutions across the country. Our attorneys are nationally recognized for their work in religious land use and zoning disputes, and we wrote the only book dedicated to RLUIPA, Litigating Religious Land Use Cases.

When school leaders hire Dalton & Tomich to help them advance their institutional goals, they gain more than just an experienced legal team. We become deeply invested in the well-being of the school’s stakeholders, from administrators and teachers to students and parents.


From the onset of the engagement, our first goal and top priority is to fully understand your objectives and identify any barriers preventing you from achieving them. We will help you overcome any legal challenge standing in the way of your goals. Our partnerships with schools and other religious institutions include serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.

Our legal services for schools engaged in religious land use and zoning cases under RLUIPA, RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) or other legislation, include:

  • Working to secure approval or denial from a local planning commission or other local administrative body when necessary
  • Providing advice on how to move forward with the local administrative process
  • Identifying and securing expert witnesses to support your action in court, which could include professionals and experts in zoning, planning, traffic and other areas
  • Gathering all of the facts and evidence
  • Collaborating with you to find the ideal way to prepare and finalize pleadings before filing suit
  • Filing a Motion for Preliminary Injunction at the outset if there is an opportunity to do so
  • Pursuing settlement or moving forward to trial, depending on your needs and the interests of your school stakeholders
  • Communicating with you to keep you updated on the progress of the case and your budget throughout the process


If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of not being able to use the building or property you just purchased, you should know two things: 1) You aren’t alone. 2) You have options.

This FREE guide will help you understand your rights, navigate your options (litigation might not even be required!) and understand the process for what happens next.

Download Your FREE Guide for Schools

Real World Results for Religious Schools

Academy of Our Lady of Peace

Dalton & Tomich partnered with the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in San Diego to protect the right of the girls’ Catholic school to modernize its facility when it was faced with unfounded opposition from the city council. Working in close collaboration with local attorneys and the school’s leadership team, Dalton secured a settlement that included cash as well as fast-tracked approval for all requested permits.

View more Case Studies


The experienced church land use and zoning attorneys of Dalton & Tomich, PLC will defend your church’s right to grow and to worship freely so your organization can thrive.



Institutional land use refers to land that is used for institutions like schools, public museums, hospitals, cemeteries and government office buildings. It is distinct in that the buildings are typically open to the public.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is often applicable but not always. Land use disputes raised by local religious schools can be supported by a number of different claims, including those under the First Amendment Free Exercise clause, the Free Speech and Assembly clauses or the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause.

Other federal statutes may come into play as well, depending on the facts of your school land use case. These may include the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disability Act, as well as constitutional and statutory provisions at the state level.

We evaluate each claim independently to determine the best strategy in moving forward on a claim to give you the best chance of succeeding at trial. For more on the question of what happens when RLUIPA doesn’t apply, watch our video.

Religious schools and other religious entities have the same right to fair and equal treatment in zoning and land use matters as secular assembly uses. Local governments who discriminate against religious schools are often in violation of RLUIPA and the United States Constitution. Our free guide to religious school land use and zoning may be a helpful resource here.

Our video on what to do in the case of a zoning denial may be helpful here. First, you’ll want to examine the zoning code to see if any additional internal appeals can be taken. If there are no internal appeals and if the facts of your case or the language of the zoning ordinance gives you the ability to challenge the denial, you can file suit in state or federal court asserting a cause of action under RLUIPA.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are happy to provide our expertise in these matters.

Conditional use permits provide that a religious use is permitted in the zoning district but not as of right. For the use to be permitted, the applicant must meet certain requirements or conditions in the ordinance and secure approval from a local governing agency.

The answer here is a difficult one, as it depends on many different factors. In general though, the time frame from filing suit until you have a trial date is 18 months.

The 18 months may be something of a rollercoaster ride with a number of highs and lows. Many aspects of the case are out of your control, for example, the judge or changes in the law. So, a timeframe and exact path is difficult to predict. Simply put, there are no guarantees for how long a case will take.

Litigation can be very difficult, and it is nearly impossible to determine up front what the overall costs might be. Much of the answer depends on the response from the other side of the case.

While we cannot tell you how much a case may cost, we can tell you, based on our extensive experience, the anticipated cost of cases moving forward. We understand that considering potential costs and all the other factors that go into choosing an attorney can be a frustrating process. We will work with you to alleviate that frustration, taking the time to understand your needs so we can help you determine your budget and the scope of services that will give you the best value for your money.

We enjoy working with clients to formulate cost-effective and creative solutions so you can make the best choice for your religious school. Our video on the time and expenses for a typical religious land use case can provide additional information.