In Immanuel Baptist Church v. City of Chicago, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that the City of Chicago had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden provision in applying its parking code regulations to an Immanuel Baptist Church (Church). In so doing, the Court reaffirmed that RLUIPA applies when a governmental entity applies a case-by-case evaluation of land use standards to a religious use applicant. This even involves a municipality’s application of a parking formula to calculate the number of parking spaces for an applicant.

Since 2011, the Church has rented two properties (containing two buildings) located in the City’s Planned Development 896 zone (Property). Under the City’s zoning code, the Church was required to have “one off-street parking spot for every 8 seats of occupancy.” The Church had the capacity for up to 146 individuals, which meant it was required to have 19 parking spots. Although the Church did not conform to this requirement, the City did not take any enforcement action to prohibit the Church from holding its religious services. The issue only arose in connection with the Church’s desire to purchase the Property in 2016 when the Church sought a letter from the City (presumably confirming zoning compliance) at the request of a lender. In 2018, the Church entered into an agreement with another property owner to obtain the required number of off-street parking spaces. The next year, the City passed an ordinance that reduced the Church’s parking requirement to zero. In the end, the Church purchased one of the two buildings it sought to acquire in 2016 and some, but not all, of the property.

The Church sued the City, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s equal term and substantial burden provisions, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City on all claims except for the substantial burden provision claim, which was to proceed to a bench trial, after which the Court ruled in favor of the Church. 

The Court reaffirmed that when a “‘government regulation does not involve a mere numerical or mechanist assessment but involves criteria that are at least partially subjective in nature,’ the government’s application of the regulation or ordinance can constitute individualized assessment.” In other words, RLUIPA applies a “case-by-case evaluation” of land use standards that may permit “potentially discriminatory denials.” Here, the Court concluded that the City engaged in an individualized assessment because it was based on the church’s individual case which involved “layers of complexity, flexibility and discretion.” 

The Court determined that “the City burdened the Church’s ability to effectively use and convert the building and develop and grow its ministry when it was prevented from purchasing the two properties.” In reaching this result, the Court gave weight to the fact that “the Church was a small church and had limited resources.” According to the Court, the Church spent “significant resources and money” trying to comply with the City’s parking code requirement. The Church’s pastor felt “distracted from his leadership of the ministry,” which resulted in the Church losing “additional ministry opportunities that the additional building would have afforded.” The Court rejected the City’s claim that any burden was self-inflicted because the City did not take any enforcement action or punitive measure against the Church or landlord. Further, the City issued an occupancy permit to the Church in 2012.

The Church sought over $400,000.00 in damages for rental increases from 2016 through the date of closing, the loss of the opportunity to purchase one of the buildings, pre-litigation legal fees, having to lease a parking lot for a year, increased mortgage payments and insurance premiums, and lost income, among other things. The Court limited damages to only $14,590 for expenses related to the Church’s lease of the parking lot when the Church tried to comply with the parking code requirement.

Read the full case here.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently clarified how to determine whether a substantial burden on religious exercise exists for purposes of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The case involves Vision Warriors Church, a “non-profit ministry that seeks to provide a faith-based community for men recovering from addiction” and helps them to be “better Disciples of Christ, fathers, husbands, leaders, and friends” through a residential program involving weekly services and faith-based meetings. The Court reversed and remanded the District Court’s earlier decision dismissing the RLUIPA claim but affirmed the case in all other respects.

Vision Warriors sought to operate its ministry on two residential parcels of about 6.5 acres in Cherokee County, Georgia. Happy Acres Mission Transit Center previously owned and operated the property as a dormitory with a mission “to promote the recreation, health, safety, welfare, common benefit and enjoyment of missionaries and to help further aid their religious and spiritual beliefs and goals.” Happy Acres offered a range of activities for up to 55 people, including services, conferences, retreats, and banquets.  It also temporarily hosted up to six families at a time at no charge. 

In 2016, Happy Acres decided to sell the property, and obtained written confirmation from County planning staff that temporary housing could continue at the property as a legal nonconforming use. However, planning staff stated that “if the previous tenants were missionaries and the new tenants are planned to be recovering drug addicts, then[n] a different zoning will be required.” In 2017, Vision Warriors entered into a letter of intent to purchase the property. On multiple occasions, planning staff again confirmed the property’s use for temporary housing subject to Vision Warriors obtaining a Tenant Occupancy Change (TOC) permit. The then zoning administrator stated, “I am the interpreter of land use, and I assure you this meets Vision Warriors[’] use.” Vision Warriors purchased the property, obtained a TOC permit, and began to operate a facility housing men formerly in recovery centers for drug and alcohol abuse. 

Following neighbor complaints in 2018, the County revoked Vision Warriors’ TOC permit because temporary shelters were not permitted in residential zones. The County took the position that planning staff had previously issued the TOC permit in error. Vision Warriors unsuccessfully appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. Thereafter, the County amended its zoning code to allow religious institutions to have temporary shelters and transitional housing by special use permit if the facilities were provided free of cost. Vision Warriors submitted a special use permit application and, in the alternative, sought to rezone its property to another zone to allow it to operate a dormitory for up to 55 residents. The County Planning Commission denied both the special use permit and rezone request, which the Board of Commissioners upheld.

Vision Warriors sued in federal court, alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), RLUIPA, the Fourteenth Amendment, and state law. The District Court dismissed Vision Warriors’ RLUIPA claim for failure to demonstrate a substantial burden on religious exercise and then granted summary judgment to the County on all other claims. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the RLUIPA dismissal but otherwise affirmed the District Court’s decision.

As for the RLUIPA claim, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the District Court applied the wrong standard in assessing Vision Warriors’ substantial burden claim. That is, the District Court improperly determined that Vision Warriors had to show that it could not use the property in any way in accordance with its religious beliefs. The County argued that Vision Warriors could not establish that it was completely banned from using its property for religious exercise because Vision Warriors could still house up to eight unrelated members. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding that Vision Warriors could allege a substantial burden without shutting its doors entirely. The Court stated that its “substantial burden inquiry does not require a Plaintiff to establish an ‘unmet’ religious need in the community, and its religious exercise need not be completely hamstrung to meet the substantial burden threshold.”

Vision Warriors also alleged that the County had intentionally discriminated against disabled persons in violation of the FHA and ADA. It also alleged violations under those federal statutes based on the County’s refusal to make reasonable accommodations. The intentional discrimination claims failed because there was no direct or circumstantial evidence to support them. There were no expressly discriminatory comments from County officials or neighbors in opposition. The closest thing to circumstantial evidence were comments made by a Commissioner who told opponents he would vote to deny the proposed use (although not expressly based on disability). The Court, however, stated that the Commissioner’s comments were probative of only one member’s motives and could not be imputed to the rest of the agency.

The Court rejected the reasonable accommodation claims on the ground that Vision Warriors failed to establish that the accommodation was truly necessary to alleviate the effects of disability. Vision Warriors did not explain why the requested 55 members “are therapeutically more meaningful as opposed to the eight members it is legally permitted to house at any time.”  Nor did Vision Warriors offer evidence demonstrating how a facility with only eight people would not be economically viable.

Vision Warriors’ “class of one” Equal Protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment also failed. According to the Court, Happy Acres was not a similarly situated comparator because the County knew that Vision Warriors sought to operate a temporary shelter but had no knowledge that Happy Acres had actually done so. In other words, Happy Acres’ temporary shelter was operated in secret, so the County could not be penalized for what it did not know.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently considered a long-running religious land use dispute involving the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama (TMAA) and the city of Mobile, Alabama. The dispute involves TMAA’s desire to convert a property zoned for residential use into a religious meditation center. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the City violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and the Alabama Constitution’s Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA) when it denied TMAA’s zoning application. However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment on TMAA’s substantial burden claim under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

TMAA is a religious organization belonging to the Dhammakaya school of Buddhism, whose “purpose is the teaching and research into growth and development of mind and spirit through meditation and expanding the knowledge of Buddhism.” In 2007, TMAA operated out of a converted house in a residential neighborhood. That operation was short-lived as TMAA was forced to relocate following neighbor complaints and TMAA’s inability to obtain zoning authorization for that location.  TMAA next moved to its present location in a shopping center located on a commercial street. According to TMAA, the shopping center was less than ideal, as it precluded congregants from religious meditation due to the noisy environment and cramped accommodations for its religion. TMAA, therefore, searched for a new location where it could practice its religion, including meditation.

In 2015, TMAA purchased a property in the City’s R-1 (residential) zoning district. Under the City’s zoning code, the R-1 zone allows residential use as-of-right and certain religious uses subject to “planning approval” by the Planning Commission. Before purchasing the property, TMAA participated in pre-application meetings with City officials and received positive feedback on its proposed religious use of the property. However, this changed once TMAA formally submitted its zoning application and public opposition manifested. Public opposition included the Buddhist character of the proposed use, with some members of the public questioning whether TMAA’s proposed use was religious in nature. Others objected due to concerns about compatibility and traffic in the residential neighborhood. In the end, the Planning Commission denied TMAA’s application, the City Council denied TMAA’s appeal, and litigation ensued.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City regarding TMAA’s RLUIPA substantial burden, First Amendment Free Exercise, and ARFA claims; TMAA appealed. Beginning with the substantial burden claim, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that there remained genuine issues of material fact requiring further proceedings. For example, factual disputes existed about whether there were alternative sites for TMAA to operate its meditation center. The City contends that TMAA owns a 100-acre parcel that would be a suitable alternative location.  TMAA, through its land use expert, opined that its 100-acre parcel was unsuitable for that proposed use. Additionally, there are factual disputes regarding whether the Planning Commission deviated from its typical procedures, including allegedly editing meeting minutes to obscure the true reason for denial. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the City on this claim.

Next, the Court affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the City on TMAA’s Free Exercise claim, concluding that the City’s R-1 zoning process is neutral and generally applicable, involving only rational basis review. The City’s alleged interests in traffic safety and zoning are “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” Therefore, permissible governmental concerns under this standard of review.

Finally, the Court reversed the District Court’s determination that the City did not violate ARFA. ARFA is similar to RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, except that it requires a religious land user to demonstrate the existence of a burden on religious exercise, but not a substantial burden. If a burden on religious exercise is established, the government must then satisfy strict scrutiny review (i.e., that the burden is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest). Unlike RLUIPA, a plaintiff may be able to show a burden on religious exercise even where the burden is only incidental or there is a mere inconvenience on religious exercise. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the City’s denial of TMAA’s zoning permit caused TMAA to at least suffer some burden. It next concluded that the City’s stated concerns regarding traffic and “preserving the character of the property and the surrounding neighborhood,” did not rise to the level of compelling government interests. According to the Court, “vague, generalize[d] invocations of governments interests in ‘zoning’ and ‘neighborhood character’ are insufficient to carry the government’s burden,” and the traffic concerns were unsubstantiated in the record. Based on the above, the Eleventh Circuit directed the District Court to enter judgment for TMAA on this claim.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is available here.

*This post was co-authored by Robinson+Cole Real Estate + Development Group Lawyer Eden (Hunter) Yerby

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts recently ruled that the RV Camp proposed by Hume Lake Christian Camps’ (Hume) was predominantly religious in nature and therefore qualified for protection under the Dover Amendment.  Similar to the federal Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, the Dover Amendment is a Massachusetts law that limits a municipality’s ability to restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes.  This means that a religious group may be able to override certain zoning regulations if the group’s proposed use serves a predominately religious purpose.

Hume, founded in 1956, is a nondenominational, conservative, evangelical Christian organization that unites different denominations sharing an evangelical Christian faith.  It hosts camps in California and Massachusetts to “evangelize the world.”   In Monterey, Massachusetts, Hume owns and operates a campground of over 400 acres, where it hosts summer and winter program camps. Activities at the camp include “religious instruction, twice-daily chapel sessions, performances by worship bands, and recreational activities such as canoeing, basketball, hiking, and ax throwing.” Additionally, Hume rents out its facilities for guest retreats. However, groups that wish to use the grounds must have beliefs that align with Hume’s and must also allow Hume to give a presentation about its ministry.  

Hume’s staff, including seasonal employees, are required to sign Hume’s statement of religious beliefs.  Counselors and food service assistants must also agree “with the theological positions, philosophy, and policies of [Hume].”  Although Hume’s campers do not have to attest to their religious faith, they must attend all camp sessions, including chapel sessions.

The dispute at issue arose out of Hume’s proposal to build an RV camp on its grounds. The RV camp would house a new family camp program, working volunteers, and seasonal summer staff, and would be within walking distance from Hume’s permanent facilities. The Planning Board of Monterey rejected Hume’s site plan application due to a zoning bylaw prohibiting mobile home parks in all districts. On appeal, the Land Court concluded that accommodations for family attendees served a predominately religious purpose and was subject to Dover Amendment protection but housing for staff and volunteers was not.

The SJC agreed with the Land Court that housing for family attendees at the RV camp would advance Hume’s religious mission, since the religious purposes exemption covers accessory uses that are not inherently religious, but whose purpose is to aid a system of faith and worship. Accordingly, even though staying in an RV camp is not a religious activity, allowing families to attend Hume’s religious programming together satisfies the religious purposes test.

Next, the SJC reversed the Land Court’s determination that the residences for staff and volunteers were not exempt under the Dover Amendment.  According to the SJC, housing volunteers and seasonal workers at the RV camp help to carry out Hume’s religious goals because volunteers and seasonal workers assist in operating Hume’s programs and maintaining Hume’s property.

Lastly, the SJC rejected the Planning Board’s argument that Hume’s primary purpose is recreation, not religious practice, due to offering activities like canoeing and ax throwing and permitting “nonbelievers” to attend the camp. In response, the court reiterated that “the religious purposes exemption is not limited to uses that are typical of or inherent to religious institutions.” Additionally, the court noted that Hume’s programs require attendance at two chapel sessions a day along with religious instruction. Instead, recreational activities are offered to boost camp attendance and engagement which promote Hume’s religious goals. Furthermore, allowing “nonbelievers” to attend the camp allows for further opportunity to evangelize.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the RV camp advances Hume’s religious mission and is an exempt use under the Dover Amendment.

The decision in Hume Lake Christian Camps, Inc. v. Plan Bd. of Monterey is available here.

*This post was co-authored by Joy Vincenzo, Summer Associate at Robinson+Cole. Joy is not admitted to practice law.

The Fourth Circuit has ruled against the Alive Church of the Nazarene’s claims that Prince William County, Virginia, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLIUPA) by denying the Church the opportunity to worship on its 17-acre property before the Church complied with relevant zoning regulations. Alive Church of the Nazarene, Inc. v. Prince William Cty., Va., 59 F.4th 92 (4th. Cir. 2023).

The property in question was zoned agricultural, for which the County required a special use permit for religious use. The prior owners of the property obtained such a permit to construct a 40,000-square-foot house of worship for religious purposes; however, the permit required the owner to install costly stormwater monitoring, among other things, prior to the permit going into effect. The Church attempted to circumvent the special use permit requirements by holding gatherings on the property as a farm winery or brewery and intended to make nonalcoholic cider using fruit harvested from its fruit trees. However, the County responded that while this use category would permit religious gatherings, the Church would have to obtain a license from the state liquor commission to do so. While the Church began to venture down this path, it ultimately changed course after determining that obtaining a liquor license would violate its sincerely held religious belief against the sale or promotion of alcohol. The County took the position that without the state liquor license, or implementation of the previously-issued special permit, the property could not be used for religious gatherings.

The Church sued in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the County had violated, inter alia, RLUIPA’s equal terms, nondiscrimination, and substantial burden provisions. The district court tossed the suit after ruling that the Church had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Church appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. 

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court and affirmed the decision. The Court held that the Church’s equal terms provision claim failed because the Church could not identify a similarly situated comparator in the subject zone. The agricultural zone allowed 14 uses by-right and 35 nonagricultural uses by special use permit, including religious institutions. By-right uses in the zone included farm wineries, limited-license breweries, and agricultural operations, including agritourism activities. The Court concluded that the Church had failed to identify a comparator and considered the purpose of the agricultural zone – to “encourage farming and other agricultural pursuits.” According to the Court, religious institutions are similarly situated to the other 35 uses allowed by special use permit because they “are not agricultural and do not advance the [Agricultural District’s] purpose.” Even though farm wineries and limited-license breweries are allowed to host special events, the events further agricultural activity by enhancing the ability to market and sell product. By contrast, allowing religious institutions to host gatherings does not promote farming.

The Church’s nondiscrimination claim failed because the Church did not allege religious animus – a required element – in its complaint. The Church simply pointed to what it perceived to be differential treatment under the zoning regulations, but did not claim that any of the applicable regulations had been enacted with discriminatory intent.

Finally, as for the Church’s substantial burden claim, the Fourth Circuit held that any alleged burden was self-imposed by the Church when it acquired the land – with the land zoned for agricultural use, the Church had no reasonable expectation of religious land use without complying either with the terms of the special permit that had issued or following the requirements to become a brewery or farm winery. The Fourth Circuit also held that the Church’s claim failed for the independent reason that the burdens alleged were not absolute; had the Church complied with the conditions in the permit, it would be permitted to hold religious services on the property.

The Church’s claims under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Peaceable Assembly Clauses and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause similarly failed.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is available here.

On December 30, 2022, a district court dismissed a Catholic high school’s RLUIPA challenge, granting summary judgment on all claims in favor of the City of Madison, Wisconsin and various other city officials (the City). As ruled by the court, the City did not discriminate against Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart, Inc. on the basis of religion when it denied Edgewood’s latest conditional use permit application for outdoor lighting at the school’s athletic fields. Edgewood’s attempt to install outdoor lighting in order to use its own fields at night, instead of using a field located a 15-minute drive east of its campus, proved unfruitful.

The court first ruled that Edgewood could not establish a violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms provision.  In the crucial absence of any evidence that the City treated a similarly situated secular school more favorably (i.e., by allowing outdoor lighting for athletic fields), Edgewood could not establish that it was discriminated against on the basis of religion. The court noted the complete dearth of evidence that the City acted with religious animus.  Rather, in upholding the Plan Commission’s denial of Edgewood’s conditional use permit application, the Common Council relied on the neighbors and neighborhood associations’ testimony and sound studies. These studies showed that the proposed addition of lights and sound equipment would greatly increase the noise levels, which were already deemed to be excessive and disturbing. The court agreed that the Common Council’s reference to noise and light disturbances, in addition to the potential detrimental effect on property values and the existing doubts regarding Edgewood’s ability to comply with suggested limits, constituted substantial evidence supporting the Common Council’s ultimate decision on appeal.    

Edgewood’s substantial burden claim fared no better.  The court stated: “Even if the court were to assume that night football (as opposed to a variety of sports conducted in gym classes and at practices) is an important element of Edgewood’s religious exercise, which is certainly not a given, plaintiff offers no evidence that it is substantially burdened by having to play night home games at a different field.” The court also rejected Edgewood’s free speech and free exercise claims.

Beyond the resolution of the RLUIPA issues, the permitting background leading to Edgewood’s filing of the complaint should also serve as a cautionary tale for both religious and secular institutions. When the City of Madison enacted Campus-Institutional Districts in 2013, existing educational institutions were given the choice to adopt a Master Plan or remain subject to their existing zoning district. Edgewood chose to participate and filed its Master Plan in 2014. While the Master Plan identified the existing athletic field use as an “athletic field owned by Edgewood High School [and u]sed for team practices, physical education classes,” it missed the opportunity to expand the description to anticipate greater use of the field. For instance, it could have described the field as a “major event facility” like UW-Madison [a secular school] had done in its own Master Plan for its tennis stadium or considered adding the possibility of the field’s expansion in any proposed developments description in the Master Plan. This unfortunately proved to be a costly error for Edgewood, as evidenced in the court’s decision.    

The decision in Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart, Inc. v. City of Madison, No. 21-CV-118-WMC, 2022 WL 18024626 (W.D. Wis. Dec. 30, 2022) is available here.

A district court has ruled that the City of Meriden, Connecticut (the City) discriminated against Omar Islamic Center Inc. following the City’s denial of the Islamic Center’s application to move its mosque to another location. The Islamic Center (the Center) outgrew is prior location – a 1,200 square foot space above a pizza restaurant in a neighboring city – and was unable to accommodate the members of the congregation, the number of students interested in its Quran and Islamic Studies classes, and the requirements that men and women separate for prayer and for ritual washing before prayer. The Center found a new site for its mosque at 999 Research Parkway, in the City’s M4 Planned Industrial District. But its special permit application was denied. On cross motions for summary judgment, the court held that the City’s zoning regulations violated the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses by treating comparable secular uses better than religious uses.

While the case was pending, the City amended its zoning regulations in an attempt to moot the religious group’s claims. The court sided with the City that the amendment rendered moot the declaratory relief sought by the Islamic Center – a declaration that the zoning regulations were facially discriminatory – because declaratory relief applies only prospectively.  However, the court determined that the regulatory amendment did not render moot the Islamic Center’s claims for damages. The court concluded that the Islamic Center was entitled to damages incurred as a result of the City’s facially-discriminatory regulations. It then held that the City’s zoning regulations were discriminatory because they allowed hotels, motels, convention centers, theaters, different types of shops, stores, and service establishments (bakeries, restaurants, and theatres), as well as institutional, public, and municipal buildings to operate as-of-right in the district, but required a place of worship to obtain a special permit in order to do so.

The City, however, prevailed on the state law Connecticut Religious Freedom Act (CFRA) claim. Because the construction of a house of worship does not constitute religious exercise under the CFRA, the court entered summary judgment in favor of the City. Finally, the court denied summary judgment on all RLUIPA claims as there was a factual dispute as to whether the Islamic Center had a sufficient property interest under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act statute to proceed.

The decision in Omar Islamic Center Inc. v. City of Meriden (D. Conn. 2022) is available here.

An interesting decision regarding RLUIPA and COVID-19 emergency public health orders was recently issued by a federal court in Missouri.  Recall that in the land use context, RLUIPA applies only to “land use regulations.”  The statute defines land use regulations as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.”  The statute also provides that it is to be “construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.”  Despite the statute’s broad protection, the court in Abundant Life Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri v. Jackson County, Missouri dismissed the church’s RLUIPA claims challenging emergency public health orders which restricted large gatherings, including church gatherings.  The court ruled that RLUIPA did not apply because the emergency orders were not “land use regulations” and therefore not subject to RLUIPA.  Instead, the court concluded that the orders regulate “conduct,” not “land use,” and dismissed the church’s claims.  Some of the church’s First Amendment Free Exercise Clause claims survived for another day because those claims can challenge any governmental law or action, not just land use regulations.

A federal court in Florida recently ruled that Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, Inc. (Church) was likely to prevail on its RLUIPA substantial burden claim challenging the City of St. Pete Beach’s enforcement of parking regulations.  Since 1957, the Church has allowed the general public to use its parking lot free of charge to access the beach.  According to the Church, providing free beach parking is part of its religious exercise in that free parking helps to attract people to the Church and affords the Church a “unique opportunity to serve the community and reach out to people who may not otherwise come to the Church.”  Over the years, the Church’s youth group decided to evangelize, pray for, and seek donations for their mission trips from people who parked in the Church’s lot.  Some of the Church’s neighbors were unhappy and complained to the City about the Church’s parking practices.  In 2016, the City took the position that its land use ordinances prohibited the Church from allowing anyone who is not a “customer” or “patron” of the Church from parking in the Church’s lot.

On January 26, 2021, the court granted the Church’s motion for a preliminary injunction and enjoined the City from enforcing its land use ordinance “to prevent or attempt to prevent the Church from continuing to allow the general public to use its parking lot, soliciting charitable donations on the lot, and evangelizing those who park in its lot.”

Continue Reading St. Pete Beach, Florida Enjoined from Prohibiting Church’s Beach Parking Lot Evangelism

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently found in favor of the Town of Pembroke, New Hampshire regarding the Town’s denial of an application for an electronic sign permit for religious messages.  The Town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (Board) denied the permit because it believed the sign would “detract from the rural character of the Route 3 corridor” and noted the Town’s interest in maintaining its “quaint little New England village” aesthetic.  Signs for Jesus and Hillside Baptist Church (collectively, the Church) sued the Town after the Board denied a permit to install an electronic sign on Hillside Baptist Church’s property which would transmit messages provided by Signs for Jesus.  According to the Church, the denial of the permit and the Town’s local sign code violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, RLUIPA’s equal terms and substantial burden provisions, and state law.  The First Circuit did not agree.  It affirmed the District Court’s decision granting summary judgment to the Town.  Our post regarding that decision is available here. Continue Reading First Circuit Rejects Signs For Jesus’ RLUIPA and Constitutional Appeal