Rights of Religious Organizations
Greg Wood is one of a handful of attorneys who has expert knowledge with respect to a religious organization's rights as they compete with municipality power in the land use arena.
State law prohibits local governments from applying landmark preservation restrictions to noncommercial property owned by religiously affiliated organizations. Two California statutes – California Government Code §§ 25373 and 37361 allow religiously affiliated organizations to exempt their noncommercial property from landmarking restrictions that otherwise might be imposed by local entities like cities. The California Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of these exemptions.
These statutes permit a religiously affiliated, nonprofit property owner to exempt its property if the owner: (1) objects to the application of the law; and (2) determines in a public forum that application of the law will cause substantial hardship that is likely to deny the owner economic return on the property, or deprive the owner of reasonable or appropriate use of its property in furthering the owner’s religious mission. Courts have recognized that historic preservation ordinances may impose significant financial burdens on the owner of the property: “Any significant financial burden, or simply the inability to demolish or alter a structure that is no longer suited to the needs of the owner, could affect the ability of many owners to carry out their religious missions.” The statutes “[p]ermit a religious body to use its noncommercial property in the manner it did before a restrictive law was imposed on it.” Therefore, the impact of the exemptions is that the owner may “continue to use the property as it sees fit . . . to further its religious mission unrestricted by the historic preservation law."
At the federal level, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., is a federal law that prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Greg successfully litigated against a city that stood in the way of a church who wanted to sell its property. Greg helped defeat landmark designation and ultimately overcame other efforts by the planning department to stop the demolition and construction of new buildings.
Churches looking to expand in California to accommodate a larger congregation, or even just wanting to convert their property to make way for profitable projects like residential development, should call Greg and discuss their options.