RLUIPA and RFRA for Corporations After Holt v. Hobbs

January 23rd, 2015

In Holt v. Hobbs, the Court made abundantly clear that RFRA and RLUIPA should be treated exactly the same. Justice Alito referred to the laws as “sister statute[s]” designed to protect religious liberties beyond those protected by the First Amendment.

Congress enacted RLUIPA and its sister statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq., “in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.” Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 4). …. Following our decision in Smith, Congress enacted RFRA in order to provide greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the First Amendment. See Hobby Lobby, supra, at ___ – ___ (slip op., at 5–6).

The Court reaffirmed its holding in O Centro to that effect.

RLUIPA thus allows prisoners “to seek religious accommodations pursuant to the same standard as set forth in RFRA.” Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U. S. 418, 436 (2006).

Throughout the opinion, there are numerous citations to Hobby Lobby, suggesting that the standards of the RFRA should apply to RLUIPA the latter.

This raises a question I addressed after Hobby Lobby was decided. Does RLUIPA protect the rights of corporations against land use decisions? As RBG explained in her dissent:

FN 12 As earlier explained, see supra, at 10–11, RLUIPA’s amendment of the definition of “exercise of religion” does not bear the weight the Court places on it. Moreover, it is passing strange to attribute toRLUIPA any purpose to cover entities other than “religious assembl[ies] or institution[s].” 42 U. S. C. §2000cc(a)(1). But cf. ante, at 26. That law applies to land-use regulation. §2000cc(a)(1). To permit commercial enterprises to challenge zoning and other land-use regulations under RLUIPA would “dramatically expand the statute’s reach” and deeply intrude on local prerogatives, contrary to Congress’ intent. Brief for National League of Cities et al. as Amici Curiae 26.

Justice Alito’s analysis, as applied to judicial review of land-use decisions, would provide for a very strong role for the courts:

The Department argues that its grooming policy repre- sents the least restrictive means of furthering a “‘broadly formulated interes[t],’” see Hobby Lobby, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 39) (quoting O Centro, 546 U. S., at 431), namely, the Department’s compelling interest in prison safety and security. But RLUIPA, like RFRA, contemplates a “‘more focused’” inquiry and “‘requires the Gov- ernment to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law “to the person”––the particular claimant whose sincere exer- cise of religion is being substantially burdened.’” Hobby Lobby, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 39) (quoting O Centro, supra, at 430–431 (quoting §2000bb–1(b))). RLUIPA requires us to “‘scrutiniz[e] the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants’” and “to look to the marginal interest in enforcing” the chal- lenged government action in that particular context. Hobby Lobby, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 39) (quoting O Centro, supra, at 431; alteration in original). …

RLUIPA, however, does not permit such unquestioning deference. RLUIPA, like RFRA, “makes clear that it is the obligation of the courts to consider whether exceptions are required under the test set forth by Congress.” O Centro, supra, at 434. …

“The least-restrictive-means standard is exceptionally demanding,” and it requires the government to “sho[w] that it lacks other means of achieving its de- sired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting part[y].” Hobby Lobby, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 40). “[I]f a less restrictive means is available for the Government to achieve its goals, the Government must use it.” United States v. Playboy Enter­ tainment Group, Inc., 529 U. S. 803, 815 (2000).

If all of the other material standards of RFRA control for purposes of RLUIPA, it is difficult to imagine why the Court’s holding concerning corporate rights would not also extend. Imagine if a zoning board denies Hobby Lobby a permit to build a store because they do not agree with their religious practices. Or if a city denies a variance to a photographer who seeks to build a new studio to photograph wedding portraits–but only opposite-sex marriages, due to her sincerely held religious beliefs. Or if Boston denies Chik-Fil-A a building license because the government does not agree with the corporation’s views on same-sex marriage (assuming this was actually the case, which it was not). You see where I’m going with this.

I’ll note that Justices Breyer and Kagan did not join RBG’s concurring opinion in Holt.