Saturday, September 4, 2010

Zoning Law Aside, Mosque Projects Face Battles

New York Times
September 3, 2010

In disputes over the construction and expansion of mosques in California, New York, Tennessee and elsewhere, supporters of the projects tend to invoke constitutional principles of religious freedom.

But to experts in land-use planning, the area of law that directly concerns the controversies scattered across the nation, the way to resolve such conflicts is in a more modern document than the Constitution. These fights are often all but moot, from a legal perspective at least, because of a federal law with an ungainly acronym.

“Every planner and zoning lawyer I’ve talked to about this is saying the same thing — Rluipa,” said Daniel Lauber, a past president of the American Planning Association.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, whose initials are commonly pronounced Ruh-LOO-pa, was approved unanimously by Congress in 2000. Its chief sponsor was Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.

The law sets a high bar for any government action that would impose zoning or other restrictions on a religious institution. Any such action must serve a “compelling government interest” while also being “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest, the law says.

Despite the clear advantage that the law gives to religious institutions, disputes over the construction of mosques have emerged around the country.