Cover image: Lone Mountain Temple rendering via Church Newsroom. 

Editor’s Note: In the April 2024 General Conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen said,”Let us pray for the temples that have been announced, that properties can be purchased, that governments will approve plans, that talented workers will see their gifts magnified, and that the sacred dedications will bring the approval of heaven and the visit of angels.”

There is good reason to pray for these details about properties and approvals, because when a temple like the Lone Mountain Temple in Las Vegas was announced, opposition began, much of it by neighbors who complained that they would not like the light of the temple, nor the height of the spire. Some of it was inspired by anti-Latter-day Saint bigotry. Of the many questions, Latter-day Saint journalist, Christopher D. Cunningham observed about the temple, we share a few with much abbreviated answers. Next, we follow with the legal assessment of attorney Mark Albright.

From Cunningham:

What is the controversy surrounding the temple?

Before building on the proposed temple project can begin, The Church of Jesus Christ has submitted a proposal to have the Undeveloped zoning changed to Civic zoning. 

Because of the requested zoning change, the city council needs to consider the proposal and vote on it. This has allowed both sides to weigh in on whether or not the temple should be built to try to persuade the local city councilors.

This meeting will be held on May 14th.

Why do Latter-day Saints want to build a temple in west Las Vegas?

On average one temple serves the members of 11.25 stakes. Stakes are geographical divisions in The Church of Jesus Christ that have about 3000-5000 members each. 

Currently the Las Vegas Nevada temple serves 31 stakes, well above the average. During high-use times such as Friday and Saturday nights, the current temple struggles to meet the demand.

What are the concerns of the opposition?

Not all the concerns about the temple relate to anti-Mormon bigotry. Those opposed believe the temple would compromise the rural nature of the area.

Most people who oppose the temple live in the Rural Neighborhood Preservation area. The proposed temple is not actually in this area, but near to it.

Is it appropriate to build so close to the boundary of the RNP?

Yes. The Walmart in the Centennial Hills Shopping Area is less than 500 feet from the edge of the Rural Preservation Neighborhood, for example. 

Much of the boundary to the Rural Neighborhood Preservation Area has cinderblock walls to house neighborhood developments immediately adjacent to the RNP. 

The area outside the RNP within a block of where the temple is proposed already includes a water district facility, compact density housing neighborhoods, and property owned by the school district.

Is the temple in a dark sky area?

No. There are no dark sky areas in southern Nevada.

Is the Church getting tax breaks or taxpayer money for the temple?

No. The temple is entirely self-funded. The Church pays all taxes appropriate for non-profit entities.

Is either side asking the city council to violate the law?

No. The area the temple will be built on is an appropriate place to be rezoned for a civic building such as a church or temple. The temple plans meet all local ordinances and requirements.

The opposition isn’t violating local ordinances by asking for the area to not be developed. Just because it is legal to develop the land, does not mean they can’t advocate for it to remain undeveloped. Rather it is simply unrealistic given the growth of Las Vegas to continue to have undeveloped lots outside of the RNP boundaries.

Have the two sides been able to work together in mutual respect?

The Church held a meeting in February of 2024 to hear from their new neighbors about their thoughts on the new building. In addition, the Church chose to develop a lot that will impact the view of as few neighbors as possible.

The Church has a long history and reputation of working with neighbors on temple plans to try and meet everyone’s needs.

On the other hand, the opposition movement has not rejected or spoken against the anti-Mormon bigotry found among them. The petition against the temple includes “reasons for signing,” Among those reasons are demeaning anti-Mormon bigotry, and the group maintains these reasons on their site.

Could Las Vegas get in legal trouble for turning down the temple?

It’s possible. Because the proposed temple does not violate any local zoning rules there would need to be another reason for denying the temple. 

The meeting of the City of Las Vegas Planning Commission will be on May 14, and some Latter-day Saints have suggested that they come, wearing navy blue, and stand in the plaza, beginning at 6:00 p.m. They write: “We need peacemakers on the plaza.”

Now the legal discussion from Mark Albright:

Members often assume that when a new temple is announced for a particular location that construction can commence immediately. However, the public announcement at General Conference is often only the beginning of the lengthy and sometimes complex zoning process.  Petitions by opponents and supporters can generate strong feelings on both sides.  Public hearings with city or county leaders can generate strong emotions.

Opponents may assert that the Church should build a smaller temple, or eliminate the steeple or select another location. Lighting is often raised as a concern. Opponents may also argue that local zoning laws prohibit a temple with a steeple in a particular location.  I share the following insights regarding temple symbolism and federal laws protecting the exercise of religion to help shed some light on these important issues.

Filled with Symbolism

Christian churches are often filled with symbolism that reflect Bible beliefs and teachings. For example, the spires atop many churches are not just architectural features; they have deep religious symbolism. Steeples and spires point upwards, directing the viewer’s eyes and mind towards heaven and the divine. They are a call to lift one’s thoughts above the mundane and earthly and towards spiritual realms.

Light is also a powerful symbol in Christianity, representing the presence of God, the light of Christ that dispels darkness and sin, and the important guidance of the Holy Spirit.  This symbolism is the reason most steeples and spires are usually illuminated at night.  Attached are beautiful steeples from around the world built to inspire the faithful in a way that a square box building in the shape of a warehouse with a flat roof could never duplicate.

Symbolically, steeples and spires, as well as the lights to illuminate the spires, act as beacons pointing towards the heavens, symbolizing the connection between the earthly and the divine. They remind the faithful of the spiritual mission of the church and the presence of a higher power, fostering a sense of hope and enlightenment. Indeed, the spire is the highest section of a steeple and is meant to “inspire” distant viewers, to come follow Christ.

Landmarks and Places of Refuge

The biblical roots of steeples relate to their representation as a strong tower or refuge, reflecting verses from Psalms and Proverbs that depict God as a protective tower. Additionally, the verticality of steeples, reaching up into the sky, resonates with ancient beliefs that high places facilitate closer connections to the divine, as seen in familiar biblical stories like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Horeb and the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.

In terms of architectural and community impact, steeples on churches of multiple faiths, often serve as landmarks, making the church a focal point within its surroundings and reminding the community of their duty to God. Their design and height can also indicate the significance of a church building, with larger steeples often signifying more important ecclesiastical structures, such as a temple compared to a chapel.

The steeples and spires on Latter-day Saint temples hold significant symbolic and practical value. They reflect a blend of spiritual symbolism and architectural beauty. In the design of these temples, steeples are usually a prominent feature (only 2 of 243 current temples have no spire or tower). These spires contribute to the distinctive silhouette of the temples, making them easily recognizable as landmarks around the world.

Reflecting the Heritage of the Local Region

Church architects often incorporate design elements that reflect the heritage of the local region in which they are built. For example, the proposed Lone Mountain Temple design in Las Vegas incorporates architectural elements from both the old Union Railroad Station on Main Street and the historic elementary school on 5th Street. Large murals painted on the interior of temples generally reflect beautiful scenes from the local area as well as the teachings of Christ.

As President Gordon B. explained in the October 1997 general conference, “The figure of Moroni, atop many of our temples, is a constant reminder of the vision of John the Revelator: ‘And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people’ ” (“Look to the Future,” Ensign, November 1997, p.67).

Protected under Federal Law

Generally, steeples and lights on houses of worship are protected under federal law and case precedents due to their significant religious symbolism and the importance of religious exercise. Religious architecture, such as steeples and lights, play a crucial role in expressing religious beliefs and these symbolic designs are protected under the First Amendment, federal statutes and often by specific zoning laws.

The Religious Land Use Act of 2000 (1) is a federal law that protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. It also ensures that the religious rights of inmates and other institutionalized persons are protected.

The law was enacted to protect houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination from local zoning laws. The Act aims to ensure that religious liberty is upheld and that religious land uses are safeguarded from undue interference by local governments.  As noted in the case law, Congress was cognizant of the tendency of a majority to marginalize and discriminate against an unfamiliar or unpopular minority, and thus the Act provides important protection for religious architecture and houses of worship.

The Act prevents local governments from using zoning laws to impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of churches or other religious institutions, unless the government can demonstrate that the imposition of the burden on that religious exercise is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

This means that while the Act does not categorically prevent local governments from prohibiting churches from being built, it does place a significant burden of justification on the government to do so. For example, a local government cannot deny a zoning application for a church simply because it prefers that the land be used for commercial development or residential development.

If a church argues that a local zoning law substantially burdens its religious exercise, the local government must then show a compelling reason for the law and that the law is the least restrictive way to achieve its goal. In other words, the Act attempts to balance the protection of religious freedoms with the interests of local governments, making it harder for local governments to use zoning laws to unreasonably restrict the building and expansion of religious institutions such as churches and temples.

Case Law

Case law provides examples of how the Act has been used over the years to support the construction of religious buildings. In Cottonwood Christian Center v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, the California federal court ruled that the public interest and balance of hardships favored enjoining a city from exercising eminent domain over property owned by a church. In Guru Nanak Sikh Soc. of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, the Ninth Circuit found that the county violated the law in denying a conditional use permit to construct a temple. Additionally, in Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville Beach, the Florida court held that the city’s blanket denial of the church’s application for a conditional use permit violated the Federal Act. The Act also provides a private right of action, allowing a religious institution to seek appropriate federal remedies.

Last month, on March 19, 2024, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to all State, County and Municipal officials in the United States, to remind them of their obligation to comply with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and to inform them about documents issued by the Department of Justice (Department) that may be of assistance to understanding and applying this important federal civil rights law. The Justice Department letter provides in part.

Among Our Most Fundamental Rights

“The freedom to practice religion according to the dictates of one’s conscience is among our most fundamental rights, written into our Constitution and protected by our laws. In our increasingly diverse nation, and at a time when many faith communities face discrimination, the department continues to steadfastly defend this basic freedom to ensure that all people may live according to their beliefs, free of discrimination, harassment, or persecution.”

The letter notes that after more than twenty-three years after RLUIPA’s enactment, far too many people and communities remain unaware of the law, or do not fully understand the scope of its provisions. “The Department of Justice implemented its Place to Worship initiative in 2018, through which we continue to work to increase both public awareness and enforcement for RLUIPA’s land use provisions. As participants at recent outreach events have indicated, and as the Department’s own investigations have revealed, there are still many municipal, county and other local officials who are insufficiently familiar with the land use provisions of RLUIPA and with their obligations under this important federal civil rights law. The Department has also received reports that religious groups, particularly those from less widely practiced religious traditions, continue to face unlawful barriers in the zoning and building process. Our work in this area suggests that litigation is far likely if local officials are aware of RLUIPA and consider its protections early in the process of reviewing land use applications from religious organizations.

“In light of this, we are sending this letter to you and other officials throughout the country to ensure that you are aware of your obligations under RLUIPA and its key provisions. Ensuring that our constitutional and statutory protections of religious freedom are upheld requires that federal, state, and local officials work together. To that end, we encourage you to share this letter with your colleagues. We hope that you will continue to work with the Department and view us as a partner in ensuring that no individual in this country suffers discrimination or unlawful treatment because of their faith.”

In summary the Act provides for:

  • Protection against substantial burdens on religious exercise: Section 2(a) of RLUIPA prohibits the implementation of any land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a person or institution except where justified by a “compelling government interest” that the government pursues using the least restrictive means.
  • Protection against unequal treatment for religious assemblies and institutions: Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA provides that religious assemblies and institutions must be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.
  • Protection against religious or denominational discrimination: Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA prohibits discrimination “against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”
  • Protection against total exclusion of religious assemblies: Section 2(b)(3)(A) of RLUIPA prohibits governments from imposing or implementing land use regulations that totally exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.
  • Protection against unreasonable limitation of religious assemblies: Section 2(b)(3)(B) of RLUIPA prohibits governments from imposing or implementing land use regulations that “unreasonably limit” religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

Each parcel of real estate is unique, with its own set of zoning rules and building requirements. As the Church follows the appropriate land use and zoning processes for each temple location, and governmental officials implement and follow federal law, all parties involved can hopefully move forward in a civil and respectful way in all temple projects.

  1. 42 U.S.C.A. 2000 cc et seq. is often referred to as The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA.

G. Mark Albright, Esq.