Christian School’s Claims Dismissed as Unripe Under Midrash Sephardi

A district court in the Southern District of Florida has dismissed as unripe claims brought by Centro de Ensenanza Palabra de Fe, Inc. (“Centro”), a tax-exempt religious organization that operates a daycare center and elementary school in addition to offering religious services, against the City of Hialeah, Florida (“City”).  Centro alleged that the City had violated its federal constitutional and statutory rights by requiring it to obtain a conditional use permit to continue operating the elementary school, even though the zoning code did not require that Centro obtain a CUP when it first opened.

Centro, which has been licensed to operate as a religious organization in the City since 2005, obtained permits from the Florida Department of Health to operate a daycare, and an elementary school, in 2006 and 2007, respectively.  At this time, no conditional use permit (“CUP”) was required.  In 2008, however, the City amended its code requiring private schools, charter schools, vocational and technical schools, post-secondary education facilities, colleges and universities to obtain CUPs.  Although the amendment was not applied retroactively, it does require schools to obtain CUPs if they seek a change of status with the City or apply for a building permit.

In 2016, Centro sought a building permit to install two exit doors and relocate an interior wall.  Upon review of the plans, the City’s Zoning Department informed Centro that it needed a CUP to operate the elementary school, and that all previous building alterations made without building permits must be brought into compliance.  Although Centro submitted a CUP application in December 2016, it withdrew the application shortly thereafter.  In February and May 2017, the City’s Fire Department cited Centro for building without a permit, among other things.  In August 2017, shortly after filing its complaint, Centro ceased both elementary school and daycare operations.

Centro’s complaint alleged that the City violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden, equal terms, and exclusions and limits provisions, as well as the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  The City moved to dismiss all claims for lack of ripeness and failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Upon review, the District Court found that Centro’s failure to apply for a CUP rendered the matter unripe under Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214 (11th Cir. 2004).  In Midrash Sephardi, the 11th Circuit explained:

The congregations’ CUP challenge fails the prudential, or ‘fitness,’ prong of the ripeness inquiry.  Because the congregations have not received a final decision on a CUP application – indeed, neither party has seriously applied for a CUP – the congregations do not raise a purely legal issue which we can decided in the abstract without further factual development.

Similarly, because Centro had not followed through on its CUP application, the District Court concluded that none of Centro’s claims were ripe for review.  In other words, if Centro’s CUP application were approved, it could continue to use the property as it had in years past.

The District Court’s opinion in Centro de Ensenanza Palabra De Fe Inc. v. City of Hialeah, affirming and adopting the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Otazo-Reyes, is available here.

Original photography by Phillip Pessar, some rights reserved.

Rabbi Lacks Standing for some RLUIPA Claims, Says Federal Court

A federal court in Maryland has found that a rabbi was without standing to bring claims under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination and equal terms provisions, since those claims can be brought only by an “assembly” or “institution.”  While the court dismissed these claims, identical claims brought by a Jewish congregation – an assembly or institution under RLUIPA – continued.

Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. (“ARIEL”) purchased property at 8420 and 8430 Stevenson Road, Pikesville, Maryland (“Property”) to use as a house of worship and a residence for Rabbi Belinsky.  The Property has a 2,000 square foot barn and 2,381 square foot two-story house.  ARIEL planned to replace the barn with a synagogue and use the house as a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky.  The zoning district in which the Property is located (Density Residential) allows places of worship as-of-right, so long as they meet certain requirements, and is also in an overlay zone with additional requirements.

ARIEL filed a petition for permission to use the Property for religious worship, and an eight day hearing was conducted before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), serving as Zoning Commissioner.  Neighbors opposed ARIEL’s use of the Property and argued that the proposed use would not comply with the overlay zone requirements.  The ALJ agreed and denied the petition.  ARIEL appealed the ALJ’s denial to the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County, Maryland (“Board”).  After conducting ten separate hearings, the Board denied the appeal.  It found that the proposed use did not comply with zoning requirements and that the denial would not violate RLUIPA.

ARIEL and Rabbi Belinsky sued Baltimore County, Maryland and the Board in federal court, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equal terms provisions; the Fair Housing Act; the Free Exercise Clause; the Equal Protection Clause; the Due Process Clause; and state law.  Defendants moved to dismiss the claims on three grounds: (a) that the federal court should abstain from considering the claims in the lawsuit; (b) that the Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies; and (c) that Rabbi Belinksy lacks standing to assert claims under RLUIPA.

The court rejected the Defendants’ abstention argument.  The Defendants asserted that the federal court should not interfere with a “complex state regulatory scheme concerning important matters of state policy for which impartial and fair administrative determination subject to expeditious and adequate judicial review are afforded.”  Abstention, said the court, was inappropriate for RLUIPA, federal constitutional, and Fair Housing Act claims, as the Plaintiffs sought to “vindicate important constitutional rights” despite the connection to zoning law.

The court also rejected the Defendants’ argument that the Plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies (in the form of following the appeals procedure in the Maryland Code).  Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Patsy v. Bd. of Regents of State of Florida, the court concluded that exhaustion is not required for claims under RLUIPA, the Fair Housing Act, or 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Finally, the court considered the Defendants’ argument that Rabbi Belinsky lacked standing to sue under RLUIPA.  For the Rabbi to bring RLUIPA claims (substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equals terms), he must have “an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract option to acquire such an interest.”  The Rabbi had such an interest, since he had an oral lease with ARIEL to reside at the Property.  However, the Rabbi did not have standing to bring RLUIPA nondiscrimination and equal terms claims because – unlike substantial burden claims – they apply only to any “assembly” or “institution.”  The court therefore dismissed the Rabbi’s nondiscrimination and equal terms claims.

The decision in Congregation Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Docket No. GLR-17-910 (D. MD 2018) is available here.

Maryland Federal Court – Church’s Alleged Substantial Burden was Self-Imposed

A federal court in Maryland recently rejected a church’s RLUIPA and related constitutional claims, finding that the religious group’s claimed harm was self-created.  The case demonstrates the importance of due diligence efforts in connection with developing property in the context of a religious land use controversy.

The religious group, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the “Church”), a nondenominational, multicultural Christian church, was established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1992 by Reverend Ware, a native of Kenya.  Within the first 10 years, the Church had no more than 10 members and regularly met at Reverend Ware’s home.  Over the next 10 years, the Church grew, and began to meet at an elementary school and hotel.  With membership on the rise, the Church searched for a new site to purchase and use as a house of worship.  In 2012, the Church believed it found a suitable property at 4512 Old Court Road in Baltimore, consisting of 1.2 acres and having a 2,900 square foot structure previously used as a home (the “Property”).  Without consulting the zoning code, the Church purchased the Property after being told by a realtor that a church use was permitted on the Property.

Still without checking the zoning code, the Church converted three rooms of the existing structure into a worship area, added two bathrooms, replaced the roof, and replaced a small deck.  The Church also created a new, gravel parking area at the rear of the structure and planted cypress trees to line the new parking area.  The Church held its first service, a cookout, and a party in October of 2012.

Local residents complained about the Church’s use of the Property.  In response, Baltimore County informed the Church that the Property had to comply with the zoning code before being used for religious worship.  While a church is a “permitted as of right” use in the subject zoning district (the Density Residential 3.5 zone), there are certain buffer, screening and setback requirements that the Church did not meet.  The Church filed a petition for a special hearing to allow its use of the Property and to vary certain parking requirements, but the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (the “Board”) denied the petition because the Church’s site plan did not comply with the buffer and setback requirements and the use was “not compatible with the neighborhood.”  The Church sued in state court, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Board’s decision.

While the Church’s lawsuit was pending, the Church submitted a second petition to use the Property.  The second petition came closer to complying with the buffer and setback requirements, but still fell short.  The Board denied the second petition without a hearing as being barred by the doctrine of res judicata.  The Church sued both the Board and Baltimore County in federal court, alleging that the defendants violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden and nondiscrimination provisions, along with the First and Fourteenth Amendments and state law.

The District of Maryland dismissed all of the Church’s claims.  First, it concluded that because the Church had no reasonable likelihood to develop the Property at the time of purchase, the RLUIPA and First Amendment substantial burden claims failed.  This was because “Plaintiffs’ failure to exercise due-diligence before acquiring and altering the Property, and subsequent proposal of a site plan that disregarded the zoning requirements, show that Plaintiffs did not have a reasonable expectation at the time Ware bought the Property that it could be used for the Church.”  Rather, the extent of Ware’s due diligence was a realtor stating that a church use was a permitted use on the Property.  As a result, the court determined that any “alleged burdens” were “self-imposed” by the Church.

The court also found that the Church’s nondiscrimination and equal protection claims failed because no facts had been alleged to support an inference that the Board had intentionally discriminated.  Further, the zoning code provisions at issue were facially neutral in that they applied to all permitted uses in the subject zone, and Plaintiffs did not identify any similarly situated churches that had been treated better.

The court’s decision in Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Docket No. RDB-17-3010 (D. MD. 2018) is available here.

Pave it! RFRA Unlikely to Protect Sacred Burial Ground

A Federal Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court of Oregon recently issued findings and recommendations in Chief Wilder Slockish, et al. v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration, et al., concluding that federal highway construction work did not impose a substantial burden on plaintiffs’ religious exercise. Plaintiffs, including members of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, alleged that defendants substantially burdened “their right to exercise religion by ‘damaging and destroying a historic campground and burial grounds through tree cutting and removal, grading, and ultimately burying the campground and burial grounds,’ and ‘by blocking off access to these by installation of a new guardrail.’”  Specifically, the plaintiffs objected to the Wildwood-Wemme highway widening project on U.S. Highway 26, in an area traditionally known to plaintiffs’ tribes as Ana Kwna Nchi nchi Patat (the “Place of Big Big Trees”) near Mount Hood. Plaintiffs’ allegations are further detailed in their complaint.

The Court concluded that plaintiffs’ RFRA substantial burden claim was foreclosed by the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Serv., 535 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2008).  In Navajo Nation, the Ninth Circuit noted that RFRA was passed in order to restore the free exercise “compelling interest” test of pre-Employment Division v. Smith cases, wherein a substantial burden was evident when a plaintiff was forced to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting a governmental benefit (Sherbert v. Verner), or violating state law and following religious convictions (Wisconsin v. Yoder).  In Navajo Nation, plaintiffs contended that the use of wastewater to produce artificial snow on a scared mountain substantially burdened their religious exercise. The Ninth Circuit rejected this claim and held that

a government action that decreases the spirituality, the fervor, or the satisfaction with which a believer practices his religion is not what Congress has labeled a ‘substantial burden’—a term of art chosen by Congress to be defined by reference to Supreme Court precedent—on the free exercise of religion…. Where …. there is no showing the government has coerced the Plaintiffs to act contrary to their religious beliefs under the threat of sanctions, or conditioned a governmental benefit upon conduct that would violate the Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs, there is no ‘substantial burden’ on the exercise of their religion… The presence of recycled wastewater on the Peaks does not coerce the Plaintiffs to act contrary to their religious beliefs under the threat of sanctions, nor does it condition a governmental benefit upon conduct that would violate their religious beliefs, as required to establish a ‘substantial burden’ on religious exercise under RFRA…

In light of this holding and its progeny, the Court concluded “that plaintiffs have failed to establish a prima facie case that their right to exercise religion has been substantially burdened.” Although na Kwna Nchi nchi Patat / Place of Big Big Trees is located on federal land, plaintiffs did not demonstrate that they are “being coerced to act contrary to their religious beliefs under the threat of sanctions or that a governmental benefit is being conditioned upon conduct that would violate their religious beliefs.”

Original photograph by Whatknotsome rights reserved.


Religious Land Use Controversy Brewing in Laurel, Maryland: Can a Church Worship in a Coffee Shop?

Redemption Community Church (the “Church”) has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Laurel, Maryland (the “City”), after the City issued a cease and desist order prohibiting the Church from offering religious services at the coffee shop it owns in the City’s community-village zoning district (the “CV Zone”).

According to the complaint, the Church purchased a 0.12 acre lot located at 385 Main Street in the City in March 2015 (the “Property”), with the intention of operating a non-profit coffee shop Monday through Saturday, and a house of worship on Sundays.  When the Church first entered into a purchase agreement for the Property, non-profit businesses and houses of worship were permitted uses in the CV Zone.  Less than a month after the Church entered the purchase agreement, however, the City amended its Code on March 9, 2015, to exclude non-profit businesses from the CV Zone, and again on April 27, 2015, to require a special exception for houses of worship located on less than one acre in the CV Zone.  Together, these amendments prohibited both of the Church’s originally intended uses for the Property.

In November 2015, the Church decided to reorganize as a for-profit entity, so that it could operate the coffee shop as originally intended.  It thereafter undertook extensive renovations, and the City issued it a use and occupancy permit to operate a for-profit coffee shop on April 3, 2017; the shop opened for business two days later.  Beginning on April 9, 2017, the Church began hosting worship gatherings of twenty or fewer people in the basement of the coffee shop for two hours on Sundays, while the shop was closed.

After some two months of these Sunday gatherings, the City issued a cease and desist order on July 27, 2017.  The Church, however, continued to hold small worship gatherings on Sundays, believing it was not in violation of the City code or its use and occupancy permit.  It was not until the City issued a second cease and desist order, on January 26, 2018, that the Church stopped holding Sunday worship gatherings.

In its Complaint, the Church alleges that the City’s April 2015 Code amendment (requiring houses of worship on less than one acre in the CV Zone to undergo “a costly and onerous special exception process”) discriminates against the Church on the basis of its religion, both on its face and as applied (nondiscrimination claim).  Moreover, the Church alleges this is unequal treatment to which secular assemblies and institutions, such as community theatres, health club or spas, libraries, museums, or schools for business, art or music, are not subject (equal terms claim).

The Complaint in Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel (D. MD. 2018), available here, also asserts claims under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Establishment clauses, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

Original photography by Mark, some rights reserved.

Satanists Sue Scottsdale, AZ Over Legislative Prayer Policy

The Satanic Temple and one of its members, Michelle Shortt, are suing the city of Scottsdale, Arizona and individual municipal officials in federal court, alleging that a Satanist was denied the opportunity to open a City Council meeting with prayer. The Temple and Ms. Shortt claim that by doing so, the defendants have violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by permitting members of Judeo-Christian faith to give prayer, but preventing Satanists from doing so.  This is not the first time that The Satanic Temple has made news in Arizona, as the Temple locked horns with the cities of Scottsdale and Phoenix in 2016, with the latter temporarily banning its 65-year pre-meeting prayer policy rather than allow a Satanist to provide prayer (prior post here).

According to The Satanic Temple, its mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people. In addition, we embrace practical common sense and justice.  As an organized religion, we feel it is our function to actively provide outreach, to lead by example, and to participate in public affairs wheresoever the issues might benefit from rational, Satanic insights.  As Satanists, we all should be guided by our consciences to undertake noble pursuits guided by our individual wills.  We believe that this is the hope of all mankind and the highest aspiration of humanity.”

Ms. Shortt, a self-identified Satanist since age 14 and member of The Satanic Temple since its inception, and who holds an Associate’s of Applied Science degree in mortuary science and is self-employed as a model, requested permission to open a City Council meeting with prayer. The Satanic Temple and Ms. Shortt allege that the city initially approved Ms. Shortt’s request to give an invocation, but never provided her with the opportunity to do so.  Plaintiffs further allege that “[a] review of the invocations during 2008 through 2016 reveal that every invocation given was of the Judeo-Christian faith.”

According to the complaint, one defendant sent responses to constituents “stating that while she likes having the prayers, she does ‘NOT want the Satanists’ and considers allowing them to speak ‘taking equality too far.’” Another defendant allegedly made a public statement stating that she would leave the meeting if The Satanic Temple were allowed to give an invocation.  Finally, The Satanic Temple alleges that in an election pamphlet, “Mayor Lane listed that he ‘stopped so-called “Satanists” from mocking City Hall traditions with a ‘prayer.’”

The complaint in The Satanic Temple v. City of Scottsdale, Arizona is available here.

*Original photography by Ty Jamar, some rights reserved.

Registration Open: 32d Annual Land Use Institute

Registration is now open here for the 32d Annual Land Use Institute to be held April 19-20, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.  This is the program, previously produced by ALI-ABA for many years, which is now produced by the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law.  The web site includes the faculty list and agenda and registration links.

Planning Co-chairs Frank Schnidman and Dean Patricia Salkin have assembled faculty from across the country, including RLUIPA-Defense’s own Dwight Merriam.  The conference will cover just about any and every area of land use law of interest, including: Affordable Housing; Agricultural Land; Comprehensive Planning; Development Agreements; Eminent Domain; Environmental Justice; Exactions; First Amendment; Historic Preservation; Impact Fees; Moratoria; Non-Conforming Uses; Takings; Variances; Vested Rights and Wetlands.

Church’s RLUIPA Claims Unripe and Moot, Says Federal Court

A federal district court in Illinois has dismissed religious discrimination and related claims alleged by the Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ (“Church”) against the City of Markham, Illinois (“City”), in connection with the City’s denial of the Church’s application for a conditional use permit.  We previously posted about this case, Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham, here and here.

The Church has been meeting at a residence previously owned by its pastor since 2003 (the “Property”).  In 2013, the Church applied to the City for zoning approval to operate the Property as a church in a residential zone.  During its review of the Church’s application, town officials questioned the sufficiency of parking at the site and ultimately denied the application after finding parking plans were inadequate.  After the City denied the Church’s application, the Church brought this suit.

In 2015, the Church’s nondiscrimination claims were dismissed for failing to allege facts to support the claim. However, the Court declined to dismiss claims brought by the Church under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, finding that these claims were adequately pled and the City’s reasons for denying the Church’s permit were not clear at the initial stage of the case. See Memorandum Opinion and Order, dated August 19, 2015.

In 2016, after reviewing the parties’ summary judgment motions and supplemental briefs, the Court struck without prejudice the dueling summary judgment motions, and ordered the Church to submit an application for a variance regarding the amount of parking required.  The Order did not opine as to whether the Church needed, or the City should approve, a parking variance, but nonetheless stayed the case until a decision on such application, allowing the parties to renew their summary judgment motions at a later date.  Accordingly, the Church submitted a variance application to the City, which was granted, in part, in March 2017.

Having concluded the variance application process, the parties renewed their motions for summary judgment, resulting in the instant decision.  See Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham (N.D. Ill., Feb. 13, 2018).

After a lengthy discussion of the parties’ “inability to hone in on the relevant issues,” the Court determined that the Church’s substantial burden claim was not ripe at the time it was filed.  The Court found that the Church improperly chose to seek recourse through the court, rather than through the City’s administrative process, when there remained available to the Church administrative remedies that could grant the Church the relief it sought without the need for judicial intervention.  As for the Church’s “purported financial setbacks” or its members’ alleged “emotional harm” resulting from the Court’s delayed consideration of the merits of this case, the Court noted: “[T]hese injuries are of [the Church’s] own making given its failure to seek the variance earlier.”

Additionally, the Court explained that, because the Church has now received a variance, there is no present case or controversy, such that the Church’s substantial burden claim is moot.

Original photography by Anthony Austonsome rights reserved.

Third Time’s Not the Charm for Trump’s Travel Ban

The Fourth Circuit ruled earlier this month that the Trump Administration’s third attempt at an immigration and travel ban, imposed on eight predominately Muslim countries, was likely to violate the Establishment Clause. On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued Proclamation No. 9645, Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats (the “Proclamation”).  The Proclamation was the third iteration of the “travel ban” promised by Trump while he was a presidential candidate.  The most recent decision by the Fourth Circuit is consistent with its earlier decision that the second iteration of the travel ban likely violates the Establishment Clause (prior post here).

The Proclamation was based on a report compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (the “Department”).  The Department reviewed information sharing and other factors on a country-by-country basis and assessed whether each country supported the United States’ ability to confirm the identity of individuals seeking entry into the United States. This report provided rationale for the Proclamation, but was not made available for judicial review. Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen were included in the Proclamation’s travel ban after the Department found their support to the United States was inadequate. Somalia did not meet the baseline criteria of inadequacy, but was still added to the ban list because of the “government’s inability to effectively and consistently cooperate, combined with the terrorist threat that emanates from its territory….”  Iraq’s support to the United States was found inadequate, but Iraq was not included on the Proclamation’s list because  of “the close cooperative relationship between the United States and the democratically elected government of Iraq….”

The Court ultimately found that the plaintiffs challenging the Proclamation had a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim. Howard Friedman’s Religion Clause Blog, quotes the majority opinion, which rejected the government’s basis for the Proclamation:

[H]ere the Government’s proffered rationale for the Proclamation lies at odds with the statements of the President himself. Plaintiffs here do not just plausibly allege with particularity that the Proclamation’s purpose is driven by anti-Muslim bias, they offer undisputed evidence of such bias: the words of the President. This evidence includes President Trump’s disparaging comments and tweets regarding Muslims; his repeated proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States; his subsequent explanation that he would effectuate this “Muslim” ban by targeting “territories” instead of Muslims directly; the issuance of EO-1 and EO-2 [travel ban 1 and 2], addressed only to majority-Muslim nations; and finally the issuance of the Proclamation, which not only closely tracks EO-1 and EO-2, but which President Trump and his advisors described as having the same goal as EO-1 and EO-2…..

The Court therefore concluded that the Proclamation lacked a secular purpose and that “[t]o the objective observer, the Proclamation continues to exhibit a primarily religious anti-Muslim objective.”  The Fourth Circuit’s decision in International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, (4th Cir. en banc, Feb. 15, 2018), is available here.

Cockfighting Not Sincerely Held Religious Belief, Rules Federal Court

In United States of America v. Cruz (F.D.N.Y. 2018), Hector Cruz pled guilty to the charge of knowingly attending a cockfighting event (a fight between two roosters) for sport and entertainment in the Bronx, New York, in violation of 7 U.S.C. § 2156(a)(2)(A) (the “Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition”).  Despite pleading guilty, Cruz raised a bevy of arguments in his defense to have the charges against him dismissed, based on his contention that the Animal Venture Prohibition infringed on the “God given rights of New York gamecock farmers.”  He claimed that the Animal Venture Prohibition violated the First, Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, but the Court elected not to address many of Cruz’s arguments because he failed to cite legal authority to support them, and many of the arguments were “incomprehensible or irrelevant.”  Among the arguments addressed by the Court were Cruz’s claims that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition violates his rights to the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).  The Court also addressed Cruz’s claim that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition constituted an illegal taking of personal property under the Fifth Amendment.

Cruz’s First Amendment and RFRA claims were premised on an apparent Biblical reference that “God gave man dominion (control and rule) over the earth, animals, fish and fowl, and our Constitution is written to ensure that each person is equal in the freedom and exercise of our God given rights as each individual chooses to believe these rights exist.”  The Court ruled that the Animal Venture Prohibition passed constitutional muster, as it was a neutral law that was generally applicable, and was rationally related to the legitimate government interest of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”

In analyzing Cruz’s RFRA claim, the Court noted that even laws that are neutral and generally applicable can violate RFRA if they substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling government interest advanced in the lease restrictive means possible.  The Court determined that Cruz could not prevail on his RFRA claim because his supposed religious beliefs were not sincerely held:

Here, Cruz has failed to make a showing that the act of engaging in animal fighting ventures stems from sincerely held beliefs that are religious in nature.  Although Cruz continually refers to the “God given”  dominion of man over animals, he does not identify any specific religious tenets or practices that are burdened by the statute.  Nor does he identify any religion or denomination from which his beliefs derive.  Indeed, in “attest[ing] to the importance of the God given rights of the American farmer,” Cruz cites quotations in which the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, exalted agriculture.  This suggests that Cruz’s beliefs are philosophical or political in nature.

The Court also rejected Cruz’s argument that the Animal Venture Prohibition was an illegal taking of personal property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  Cruz argued that “animals are property” and that the Supreme Court held “the right of ownership of property includes the inherent right to use ones [sic] property.”  The Court was not persuaded, instead observing that the Supreme Court has held that there is no taking of personal property if the government proscribes only one particular use of the property (such as its sale), if the owner maintains other rights to the property.  Here, the Animal Venture Prohibition proscribed only one specific type of use (animal fighting), without affecting other allowable uses, and did not constitute a taking.

Photo by SUBHRO GANGULYsome rights reserved.