In the nearly four years since former President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, intended to ease city zoning restrictions for religious institutions, the civil rights law has pitted neighbor versus neighbor and church versus state in areas nationwide.
About 50 cases in such states as California, Florida, Texas, Hawaii and Alabama are challenging the federal law as residents worry that churches, temples, mosques, homeless shelters and other religiously affiliated institutions will erode the quality of life in neighborhoods and business areas. At the same time, cities are finding the law has undermined their right to zone their own communities.
"This means a lack of control over land use," said Los Angeles Asst. City Atty. Cecilia V. Estolano. "A municipality needs to be able to control its own borders ... its own destiny."
Under the law, a religious institution can operate "a casino, a liquor store or any farfetched adventure," Estolano said. "Any form of denial for use can become an RLUIPA issue."
Religious groups that have invoked the law for protection say they are only fighting for the right to practice their faith and serve in areas where they feel they are needed.
The congressional record states the law was needed because there has been "massive evidence" of discrimination nationwide because of race, especially of black churches, or religion, especially Jewish synagogues. Additionally, the record noted, discrimination has occurred because religious institutions generate too much traffic in residential areas or not enough in commercial zones or may be aesthetically inconsistent with city planning. Those opposed to RLUIPA dispute these claims.
California, which often leads the nation in real estate trends and issues, appears at the forefront of testing the law. Of the cases wending their way through courts nationwide, about a third are in California, according to Roman Storzer, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"There is such greater emphasis on land in California," Storzer said. "You don't see these kinds of cases in North Dakota. Most of the time this is about neighbors' NIMBYism and churches' abilities to worship."
Some homeowners claim to have concerns about quality-of-life issues -- increased traffic, for instance -- and others worry that property values will suffer.
But, according to John Karevoll, an analyst with La Jolla-based DataQuick Information Systems, the presence of religious institutions in neighborhoods does not affect home prices.
"The only effect on home values are really those that are economic," he said, adding that only a loss of jobs or increased crime in an area have proved to negatively affect prices.
"We've even looked at what happens when, for instance, a halfway house comes into a neighborhood, and we've found there are no discernible effects on home values," Karevoll said. "For every home buyer bothered by something, there are 10 other buyers out there willing to disregard the issue."
For Hancock Park resident Michelle Younis, the construction of an 8,000-square-foot Orthodox Jewish temple for the Etz Chaim congregation next to her home at the corner of 3rd Street and Highland Avenue is an issue of loss of privacy.
"I like to sunbathe," said Younis, 35. "I can't do that anymore. In fact, I can't even change in my bedroom without drawing the shades as the windows of the temple overlook my room."
Younis was particularly troubled by what appeared to be security surveillance cameras that were installed outside the building during construction. "I can no longer do anything in my backyard" because of a camera that seems to point directly at the yard, she said. The temple said the camera monitors a walkway on its property.
For other neighbors, some of whom have long argued that the congregation should not be allowed to hold services in a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes, it's a quality-of-life issue. Nine Hancock Park homeowners have filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles challenging RLUIPA and for allowing a single-family residence to be remodeled into a full-scale temple in their neighborhood.
The homeowners want the original structure -- a 3,600-square-foot two-story house that the congregation had been using for services since the 1990s -- to be restored. The house fell down in 2002 during a city-approved major remodel.
The litigants worry that their community will be eroded by nonresidential uses, that institutional buildings will increase traffic, and that the remodel is overbuilt for the lot.
"This is about how the city gave up our residential zoning, and we are afraid the temple will create a precedent" for other nonresidential uses, said neighboring homeowner Cindy Chvatal-Keane, a litigant in the case. "This isn't about religion. This could be a church or a mosque, a temple or a parking lot, it wouldn't matter."