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Key Topic: Zoning Validity Challenges

Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Twp,
2004 WL 1837037 (E.D. Pa)

The Congregation Kol Ami (Synagogue) purchased land in a residential neighborhood in order to build a place of worship. A zoning ordinance in Abington Township did not allow Synagogues to be built in residential districts. Both the Township and the ZHB refused to grant the Synagogue's request for a variance because the Synagogue could not show unnecessary hardship. Instead of appealing the denial of the variance in State Court, the Synagogue brought suit in Federal Court against the Township pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-1, among other claims.

The RLUIPA significantly changed the course of decisions of governmental actions affecting the free exercise of religion.

The Court, addressing the Township's motion for summary judgment, addressed the question of whether or not the zoning ordinance and the denial of the variance request burdened the religious exercise of the Synagogue. First, the Court concluded that, based on the language of the RLUIPA, building a place of worship was a "religious exercise." Prior to the RLUIPA, courts have held that restrictions only affecting religion financially or aesthetically were not substantial burdens on religious exercise. However, Congress redefined "religious exercise" in the RLUIPA to include "the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise." Therefore, the Court held that the Synagogue's plan to build a place of worship was a religious exercise. Second, the Court concluded that the ordinance presented a substantial burden because it prohibited the religious exercise of building a place of worship in the residential zoning district.

The Court then analyzed the ordinance under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (Pa-RFRA). This act is largely the same as the RLUIPA. However, the definition of "substantially burden" is different. The Pa-RFRA defines "substantially burden" as burdens that actually affects a person's ability to practice the religion or forces a person to violate a tenet of the religion. Because the Synagogue was not required, by the teaching of the faith, to be located in a residential neighborhood, the Court held that the ordinance did not "substantially burden" the Synagogue pursuant to the PA-RFRA.

Subsequently, by Order entered September 21, 2004 (2004 WL 2137819) the Court denied the Township's Motion for Partial Reconsideration. The Order also amended the August 17, 2004 Opinion to include the language appearing in the September 21, 2004 Order. The included language stated that the Court's substantial burden analysis turned on the "expansion of the concept of 'religious exercise' as defined by RLUIPA, and not on any change of the definition of 'substantial burden'."


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