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

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