Today, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Elijah Group, an Christian church prohibited from worshiping in its building because that building was located in a retail district. The Becket Fund represented the church against the City of Leon Valley, Texas, which refused to allow churches into its retail zone, but welcomed businesses like auditoriums, convention centers, private clubs, and movie theaters. According to the City, it would be “very undesirable for a large church to displace sales tax generating business/commercial property . . . and have a giant ‘hole’ in a retail area.”
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Leon Valley’s actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a federal civil rights law that protects churches.
“This victory sends an important message to city hall: you can’t treat churches like second-class citizens solely because they don’t generate tax revenue,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund, who argued the case for the church. “If a city lets people assemble for shopping and entertainment, it has to let them assemble for worship, too.”
The Fifth Circuit invalidated the city ordinance under RLUIPA’s Equal Terms provision, which forbids local governments from treating “a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” As the Fifth Circuit explained, “Try as we may, we cannot reconcile [city’s] treatment of a church differently than a private club.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit found that the city’s actions violated the church’s religious freedom.