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Ruling on Religious Land Use Is on Hold

August 12, 2003|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed Monday to reconsider his earlier ruling invalidating a key part of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which requires local governments to apply the least-restrictive zoning measures against religious groups.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson raised alarms in many quarters of the religious community in June when he ruled that the federal law violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

At that time, Wilson called the 3-year-old law "a blunderbuss of a remedy" that unfairly barred local authorities from making "legitimately motivated and generic" land use decisions "simply because the aggrieved landowner is a religious actor."

On Monday, however, Wilson put his ruling on hold and agreed to reconsider it at the request of lawyers for the Elsinore Christian Center, which sued the city of Lake Elsinore in 2001 after being denied a conditional-use permit to move into a downtown building.

Wilson said the center might be entitled to pursue its case under the Constitution's commerce clause. In that event, there would be no need for him to rule on the constitutionality of the religious land use act.

The judge put off a final decision for four months to give opposing sides time to conduct depositions and discovery.

Robert H. Tyler, legal counsel to the Alliance Defense Fund, a Temecula group representing the center with the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said Wilson's ruling "represents a major victory at this stage of the litigation."

With his June 23 ruling, Wilson became the first judge in the country to find that the land use provision of the federal law was unconstitutional.

The law was enacted in 2000, drawing support from congressional liberals and conservatives, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a more restrictive measure in 1997.

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