Federal Court Dismisses RLUIPA Challenge to Missouri Emergency Public Health Orders

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An interesting decision regarding RLUIPA and COVID-19 emergency public health orders was recently issued by a federal court in Missouri.  Recall that in the land use context, RLUIPA applies only to “land use regulations.”  The statute defines land use regulations as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.”  The statute also provides that it is to be “construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.”  Despite the statute’s broad protection, the court in Abundant Life Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri v. Jackson County, Missouri dismissed the church’s RLUIPA claims challenging emergency public health orders which restricted large gatherings, including church gatherings.  The court ruled that RLUIPA did not apply because the emergency orders were not “land use regulations” and therefore not subject to RLUIPA.  Instead, the court concluded that the orders regulate “conduct,” not “land use,” and dismissed the church’s claims.  Some of the church’s First Amendment Free Exercise Clause claims survived for another day because those claims can challenge any governmental law or action, not just land use regulations.

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