December 18, 2014
The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it has reached a “settlement agreement in principle” with a Minnesota city that tried to prevent an Islamic group from establishing a worship center. In 2012, the St. Anthony, Minnesota city council voted to deny the Abu Huraira Islamic Center’s ability to set up a worship center in the basement of a local business complex. Although a city planning commission recommended that the Islamic Center’s plan be approved, the council voted 4-1 to reject the plan after several local residents spoke out against it, many of them reportedly making “disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith” in the process.
The Justice Department sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law which provides that “[n]o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution” except under certain limited circumstances. Though the proposed settlement still needs to receive final approval from the St. Anthony city council, the Justice Department itself and a federal district judge, DOJ’s triumphant press release announcing the agreement suggests that they do not anticipate problems getting to final approval.
Under the terms of an agreement reached during a settlement conference with a federal magistrate judge, the Islamic Center will be able to “use the St. Anthony Business Center for religious worship” and “the City of St. Anthony Village will not treat Abu-Huraira or any other religious groups in a discriminatory manner by application of its zoning laws.”
The RLUIPA law that underlies DOJ’s involvement in this case closely resembles another law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that formed the basis of the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby decision earlier this year. Hobby Lobby, which held that many private businesses may refuse to include contraceptive care in their health plan if the business’ owners object to birth control on religious grounds, rejected decades of precedent indicating that religious objections should not be wielded to diminish the rights of others — especially in the business context. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”
The St. Anthony case, by contrast, is a less controversial application of federal religious liberty law because the presence of a worship center at a particular location does not diminish the legal rights of people who hold different religious beliefs.