Zoning and districting laws are not only used to gerrymander. In the case of a small town in Texas, Leon Valley, a city ordinance told a church that it was not allowed to apply for a special land permit so they could host services on their property. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing
Years ago, Congress realized that cities and counties could use their zoning powers to preclude houses of worship from landing in their backyard. On the face, these laws appear neutral. But, the application of these laws can often be less than equal.
That’s why Congress included the “equal terms” provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That provision makes it unlawful for the government to implement a land use regulation that treats a house of worship “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”
That’s what happened in the City of Leon Valley, Texas. The Elijah Group, a church, bought property within an area of town zoned for business. The church tried to apply for a special use permit so they could have services on their property, but were told that churches weren’t allowed to even apply for one. When they tried to hold services anyway, the city obtained a temporary restraining order from the court.
Ultimately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that the city ordinance was invalid. By preventing the church from even applying for a special use permit, the church was not being treated on the same terms as a similar nonreligious institution.
In other words, federal law requires zoning laws apply equally to every organization, religious or not. After all, that’s only fair.