Christian churches on both sides of the country have sued local governments based on a new federal law that prohibits, among other things, discrimination against religious organizations seeking zoning rights.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act requires cities to demonstrate a compelling state interest for any substantial burden they place upon any church’s usage of its property. It also prohibits selective discrimination against churches regarding zoning policies. The act states:

No 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, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The law is intended to replace the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, or RFRA, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as unconstitutional because it attempted to tell the federal courts how they must interpret and apply the First Amendment when scrutinizing state and local laws. RFRA violated the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution. Critics of RLUIPA say the new law may be struck down for the same reason.

In the meantime, Christian organizations are using the law to combat an increasingly common occurrence: Denial of zoning rights to Christian organizations. A Christian pastor in Florida has sued county officials for denying his right to establish a church on property the congregation purchased near a community of self-described “spiritualists.”

The Liberty Counsel filed the lawsuit in an Orlando federal court on behalf of Pastor John Ferro. Dunamis Community and Outreach Ministries currently meets in a storefront location in Lake Helen, Fla., but has purchased a piece of property less than a mile from the unincorporated town of Cassadaga.

Cassadaga describes itself as the “metaphysical mecca” of Florida. It is one of many unincorporated communities in Florida and is located just off I-4 between Orlando and Daytona Beach. The 57-acre town is populated almost exclusively by “spiritualists,” whose beliefs are based on the notion that one can communicate with the dead. It is home to about 400 residents – most of them are in their 70s – and accommodates thousands of visitors every year, according to an Orlando tour guide.

The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp – the town’s central spiritual organization – has about 36 certified mediums, and the town contains a number of others, including psychics, palm readers and card readers, who have gathered there because of Cassadaga’s reputation. Psychic readings run $40 to $50 per half-hour, according to the camp’s website. The camp was founded by a Baptist-turned-spiritualist in 1894. In 1994, the federal government added Cassadaga to the National Register of Historic Places.

The property purchased by Dunamis is nearly a mile outside Cassadaga. Dunamis applied to the Volusia County planning commission for a zoning change to allow for a church-meeting place. County staff recommended approval, stating, “The application for a House of Worship is consistent with the purpose and intent of the zoning ordinance and the comprehensive plan. It will not generate undue traffic.”

However, the commission itself denied the request, and the county council upheld the decision on appeal after hearing public comment from local spiritualists who said they did not want to be evangelized by a Christian church.

The Planning and Land Development Regulation Commission said its reasons for rejecting the church’s plans centered around concerns about sprawl from a neighboring town. Councilman Jim Ward stressed that his decision to uphold that board’s ruling had nothing to do with religion. Dunamis’ appeal to the county council was rejected by a 4-3 vote.

Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, claims the refusal to permit a Christian Church in Cassadaga violates the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

“There is no Christian church in Cassadaga. The Constitution and the Religious Land Use Law prohibit religion-free zones. It is certainly a violation of federal and constitutional law to prohibit a church from locating in a secular area of town, and it is even more egregious to prohibit a church solely because of its Christian viewpoint. To discriminate among religions is the worst violation of the Constitution and federal law imaginable,” remarked Staver.

Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association President Don Zanghi is quoted by a local news publication as saying, “We feel threatened by it.” Zanghi said Ferro, the church’s pastor, often walks through the camp trying to convert residents to Christianity.

In southern California, a church is suing the City of Lake Elsinore over a similar zoning dispute. Late Wednesday, the Pacific Justice Institute and its affiliate attorney Robert Tyler of the Temecula-based law firm Tyler, Dorsa & Eldridge, filed a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit against the city. Filed on behalf of the Elsinore Christian Center, which was denied use by the city of the property it currently has in escrow, the lawsuit alleges that the city violated RLUIPA and the church’s constitutional rights.

Government restrictions and zoning ordinances often are cited as the No. 1 deterrent to church growth in the United States today. As previously reported by WorldNetDaily, San Jose Christian College is another religious institution in California denied rights to build on property it recently purchased. In that case, the school bought an abandoned Catholic hospital, but the City of Morgan Hill refused to allow the school to move in.

“It is our intention to send a loud message to cities across the nation that substantial burdens on churches by government must come to a halt,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI. “Through our network of over 1,000 attorneys nationwide, we intend to hold every local government accountable to ensure that church rights are respected. As we prevail in these cases, we expect to see unparalleled growth and development of churches across America.”

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