Justice Department Settles Case Against Village of Walthill, Nebraska, for Restricting Christian Church from Building New Place of Worship

The Justice Department today announced that it has reached a settlement resolving allegations that the Village of Walthill, Nebraska, violated a church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The department alleged that the Village unlawfully refused to grant the necessary permits required for Light of the World Gospel Ministries Inc.

(LOTW), a nondenominational Christian Church, to construct a new church building on land it owns in a commercial district of the Village.

Under the Village’s zoning code, churches and other religious institutions are required to obtain a special use permit to operate anywhere in the Village.

The settlement, which was approved today by the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, resolves a lawsuit the United States filed in February 2020.

The United States alleged that the Village’s refusal to allow LOTW to construct a new church on its property substantially burdened its religious exercise.

The lawsuit also alleged that the Village treated LOTW less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions that were allowed to construct buildings for noncommercial uses in the same district during the same period.

“The ability to establish a place for collective worship and other religious services is a fundamental right protected by our civil rights laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Civil Rights Division will remain vigilant in protecting the rights of religious communities to build houses of worship and use their property for religious purposes.”

“RLUIPA protects the right of every religious community to worship free from unlawful burdens,” said U.S. Attorney Jan W. Sharp for the District of Nebraska. “We will not tolerate the unlawful use of zoning or land use restrictions to infringe on that right.”

The settlement provides for the approval of the necessary permits so that LOTW can construct a new, multi-use church facility in downtown Walthill; prohibits the Village from engaging in future violations of RLUIPA; mandates RLUIPA training for Village Board members and staff; and requires that the Village provide notice to the public regarding rights protected by RLUIPA and comply with recordkeeping and reporting requirements.

The court also recently approved another settlement to resolve a related lawsuit that LOTW filed against the Village.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at 1-833-591-0291 or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska at (402) 661-3700, or may submit a complaint through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship

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