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Mira Mesa: San Diego Real Estate Roundup: Town Cannot Zone Out Synagogues

In San Diego, we have several Jewish congregations. These include Temple Emanu-El, Beth Jacob Congregation and many others. Our firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP does not endorse or sponsor any of these religious organizations and is non discriminatory in all of our practices. The below example is used for illustrative purposes only.

Two small Jewish congregations leased second-floor space in a bank building in the business district of a small town. Under the town’s zoning ordinance, churches and synagogues were allowed in only one of the town’s eight zoning districts. Unfortunately for the congregations, their location was not in that district. When the town tried to direct the congregations out of the business district and into the one district where synagogues were allowed, the worshipers objected. They maintained that there was no suitable location in that district and that such a move was not practical or convenient for the many members who had to walk to services.

When the dispute eventually reached federal court, the congregations ultimately prevailed on a claim brought under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Essentially, that law prohibits a governmental entity from implementing a land-use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution less favorably than a nonreligious assembly or institution. The town’s ordinance ran afoul of the RLUIPA because it permitted private clubs, social clubs, and lodges in the same business district in which it banned churches and synagogues.

The town argued that it was reasonable to keep houses of worship out of the business district because they eroded the tax base and reduced the vitality of the retail areas. The court agreed with the congregations’ response that the places of worship were no more of a drag on business than the clubs and lodges that were allowed in the business district. In fact, there was evidence that members of the congregations regularly stimulated the local economy as they patronized shops on the way to and from the synagogues. There was no comparable stimulus from members of private clubs, who gathered less often and sometimes during nonbusiness hours. All that was left to explain the town’s treatment of the congregations, as compared to the town’s treatment of the congregations’ secular counterparts, was the religious nature of their activities. It was just such discrimination that Congress meant to prohibit when it enacted the RLUIPA.

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