Washington Law Review


The "equal terms" rule of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prohibits federal, state, and local governments from enacting land use regulations that place religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions. The plain language of RLUIPA makes it clear that the equal terms rule prohibits unequal treatment of religious assemblies and institutions as compared to non-religious assemblies and institutions. RLUIPA's legislative history further reveals that Congress enacted the equal terms rule to counter zoning laws that favor secular assemblies and institutions over religious assemblies and institutions. Accordingly, federal courts have interpreted the equal terms rule to require that zoning laws treat religious assemblies and institutions no less favorably than non-religious assemblies and institutions, except where such laws are narrowly tailored to advance state interests of the highest order. In Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a zoning law allowing private clubs and lodges in a business district while prohibiting synagogues and churches violated the equal terms rule. The Midrash court further held that the zoning law was not narrowly tailored because private clubs and lodges did not further the purpose of the business district any more than synagogues and churches. The city of Seattle prohibits the establishment of new religious facilities in industrial zones, while allowing the establishment of new lecture and meeting halls and new community centers. This Comment argues that Seattle's disparate treatment of religious facilities as compared to lecture and meeting halls and community centers violates the equal terms rule under a plain reading of RLUIPA, as supported by the Act's legislative history. In fact, Seattle's laws are analogous to a number of zoning laws that were amended in response to equal terms lawsuits. Seattle's laws also bear close resemblance to the law at issue in Midrash. Under Midrash, Seattle's laws are not narrowly tailored to advance interests of the highest order because religious facilities, lecture and meeting halls, and community centers are all similarly unrelated to Seattle's goal of promoting industrial development.

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