In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act, commonly referred to as “RLUIPA,” to level the playing field between local governments
and religious entities in the context of land use and zoning, and
between local and state governments and prisoners in the context of prison reform. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (hereinafter referred to as “RLUIPA” or “the Act”) creates a private cause of action and its section 2(a) provides for “appropriate relief” against governments that violate the statute. RLUIPA’s provision authorizing a cause of action states: “A person may assert a violation of this chapter as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government.” However, the Act defines “government” to include:
(i) a State, county, municipality, or other governmental entity
created under the authority of a State;
(ii) any branch, department, agency, instrumentality, or official of an entity listed in clause (i); and
(iii) any other person acting under color of State law . . . .
While no court disputes that “appropriate relief” allows for
injunctive and declaratory relief, there remains a question among some courts of whether the phrase encompasses a right to nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages. There should be no argument as the text, context, and legislative history of the Act all indicate that “appropriate relief” includes, among other things, relief in the form of money damages, and I opine that such a reading of the statute is in accord with Congress’s intent when it originally drafted the statute. Congress’s anticipated scope of relief includes nominal, punitive, and compensatory damages against municipalities, but also all of these damage types are recoverable against governmental officials in both their official and individual capacities.