A federal court in California recently held that an individual adequately stated a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when he was not allowed to build a chapel on his land. In Anselmo v. County of Shasta, California, the plaintiff, owner of a ranch and winery, sought to build a small chapel on his expansive property in Shasta County. The plaintiff is described as “a devout Roman Catholic,” and claims that the closest place of worship which comports with his beliefs is a one-and-a-half hour drive away from his property. To remedy this, he began building a small chapel on his property for worship which would also be available to his workers and visiting priests. The county has denied the necessary permits for the building. The plaintiff filed suit in federal court alleging a violation of his rights under the US Constitution and RLUIPA.
The county submitted a motion to dismiss the suit. When addressing the RLUIPA claim in the opinion regarding the motion, the court said that the plaintiff had properly stated a claim under the “substantial burden” prong of RLUIPA. In order to state a claim under the “substantial burden” provision, a plaintiff must allege, among other things, that a government restriction has place a substantial burden upon its religious exercise. Even though there was no religious institution involved, the plaintiff’s wishes “to build a chapel on his land in order to worship in accordance with his faith are sufficient to allege that religious exercise is implicated.” In considering whether the plaintiff had sufficiently alleged that the county had placed a substantial burden on his religious exercise, the court noted that without the private chapel, the plaintiff would be burdened with a three-hour round-trip drive every day in order to worship according to his beliefs. The court ruled that this was more than “mere inconvenience” and was enough to survive a motion to dismiss on the RLUIPA claim. Many of the plaintiff’s other claims in the suit were dismissed, so the “substantial burden” prong of RLUIPA should be the central issue in the case moving forward.
While it remains to be seen if the plaintiff’s arguments will prevail when this case is resolved, this opinion shows that RLUIPA protections extend beyond the obvious situation of a religious institution building a worship center. In this case, an individual with no official affiliation with a larger religious institution has been able to state a claim under RLUIPA to protect his building of what is essentially a personal chapel. While the plaintiff may not ultimately prevail in this case, it will surely be a case worth watching. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive, nation-wide experience with RLUIPA claims, particularly in California. We represent people and institutions of all faiths. If you feel that your rights or the rights of your institution have been violated in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact us.
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In my role as Administrative Bishop for the Church of God, quite often we are faced with issues that involve local governments and municipalities. Many of these issues that arise in dealing with entities are land use related. I have found Dalton & Tomich’s experience and expertise in this area to be a valuable resource and asset in every situation.
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