Condemning Religion: RLUIPA and the Politics of Eminent Domain
Should religious landowners enjoy special protection from eminent domain? A recent federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), compels courts to apply a compelling interest test to zoning and landmarking regulations that substantially burden religiously owned property. That provision has been controversial in itself but today a new cutting-edge issue is emerging: whether the Act's extraordinary protection should extend to condemnation as well. The matter has taken on added significance in the wake of Kelo, where the Supreme Court reaffirmed its expansive view of the eminent domain power. In this Article, we argue that RLUIPA should not give religious assemblies any extraordinary ability to resist condemnation. We offer two principal reasons for this proposal. First, the political economy surrounding condemnation is markedly different from that of zoning, so that broadening the law's protections beyond zoning to cover outright takings would be unnecessary and ineffective. Second, the costs of presumptively exempting congregations from condemnation are likely to be far higher than the costs of doing so with respect to zoning. In conclusion, we identify an important implication of our argument for the law's core zoning provision-namely, our proposal invites local governments to circumvent RLUIPA by simply condemning religious property that they find difficult to zone because of the Act. On the one hand, this gives local governments a needed safety valve while, on the other hand, requiring them to pay just compensation to religious groups. Our proposal therefore suggests a powerful compromise.