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

If you are a municipality defending against a RLUIPA lawsuit, it is generally not a good sign when a court’s memorandum of decision begins with a string of biblical quotes.  Wakulla County Florida experienced this earlier this summer.  When granting a religious group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to operate a transition home, Judge Mark Walker opened his decision by writing:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?” Matthew 25:44. To which the Lord replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”  Id. 25:45.  Scripture teaches that by serving those in need, particularly those shunned by society, one serves the Lord.  See James 2:14-16 (“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”).

The court went on to find that Wakulla County’s actions in prohibiting City Walk – Urban Mission Inc. (Urban Mission) from operating a transition home for three or more people, including registered sex offenders, violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. Continue Reading Florida Court Finds RLUIPA Protects Transition Home for Registered Sex Offenders

Across the nation, religious institutions are challenging COVID-19-related restrictions on religious worship.  There are too many cases to note.  We recently posted about the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) decision denying an application for injunctive relief filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay-At-Home order and 4-stage reopening plan which restricted religious worship gatherings.  We also posted about district court cases from Kentucky and North Carolina where executive orders in those states were found to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. On May 30, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in a one-line order, upheld a decision by the District Court for the District of Delaware that declined a church’s request for a temporary restraining order against enforcement of Delaware Governor John Carney’s COVID-19 emergency orders. Continue Reading Judicial Restraint in the Time of COVID-19?

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for injunctive relief filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church (Church) challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay-At-Home order and 4-stage reopening plan as it relates to religious worship gatherings.  The Church, which has between 3 and 5 services each week with 200 to 300 congregants, sought to enjoin the restrictions which limit attendance at places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied the Church a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to enjoin the religious worship restrictions.  A week later, the Supreme Court denied the Church’s application for injunction relief.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted to deny the injunction but did not write an opinion.  Chief Justice Roberts concurred in denying the injunction and filed a short opinion.  Justice Kavanaugh filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch.  Justice Alito dissented but did not write an opinion. Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Upholds California’s COVID-19 Restrictions on Religious Worship

Last week, a federal court in North Carolina issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the assembly of religious worship provisions in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 138 (EO-138).  The court found that EO-138 was likely to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  Under EO-138, all worship services involving more than 10 people must be held “outdoors unless impossible.”  Governor Cooper’s Director of Legislative Affairs issued a “Guidance for Religious Services and Mass Gathering Restrictions” that provides:

In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations – such as through, for example a series of indoor services of ten or fewer attendees or through on-line services – the ten-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply.  For example, there may be situations where particular religious beliefs dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than ten persons must be in attendance.

Continue Reading Federal Court: “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

Earlier this month, a federal court in Kentucky temporarily enjoined an order issued by the Mayor of Louisville on the grounds that the order likely violated First Amendment and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On Holy Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, including for the Easter holiday, even if they remained in parked cars.  On Fire Christian Center, Inc. (On Fire) wanted to hold its Easter worship service and planned to have its congregants attend by remaining in their parked vehicles 6-feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines.  The only people who would be outside of cars would be the pastor and a videographer.  On Fire sued the Mayor and City of Louisville and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the enforcement of the order.  The court issued agreed with On Fire and issued the TRO.  According to the court, “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.”  (The court was quick to point out that it did “not mean to impugn the perfectly legal business of selling alcohol, nor the legal and widely enjoyed activity of drinking it.”) Continue Reading Federal Court: “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.”