San Diego, California has had some landmark cases involving churces and local land use officials. Findlaw is an on line research service for members of the public and Thompson-West is a service for legal professionals.
In disputes between churches and local land-use officials, Congress has tipped the scales in favor of the churches with recently passed legislation. Although its full impact is being sorted out by the courts, the law prohibits any land-use regulation that has the effect of imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, unless the government proves that such a burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive method of doing so.
The new measure already has been a potent weapon for religious groups in conflicts with localities over the location, size, and design of churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as schools, day-care centers, homeless shelters, summer camps, and other church-run uses of property. Even prayer meetings held at homes benefit, as using any real property for a religious purpose is a protected religious exercise. This can be considered a First Amendment Right to the United States Constitution.
Counties and municipalities will have to show more flexibility in dealing with religious uses of property, although they have not been rendered powerless every time a church applies for a land-use permit. It can be expected that religious land uses will be allowed in more zoning districts and are not as likely to be subjected to special conditions. Certainly, any zoning ordinance that excludes churches from the entire locality is ripe for a court challenge. The law explicitly prohibits any regulation that “totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction,” or unreasonably limits them.