Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of City’s Approval of Chabad Religious Center as Moot

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the lower court’s decision dismissing an Establishment Clause challenge over the approval of a religious center.  The lawsuit was brought by two residents who live near a mixed-use, two-story religious center proposed by Chabad of East Boca, Inc. (“Chabad”).  In 2007, Chabad sought to acquire land located in the City of Boca Raton’s single-family zone, where “places of worship” are prohibited.  The same year, the City introduced a proposed ordinance that would have allowed places of worship on land originally zoned for residential use.  The ordinance would permit Chabad to develop the land in the single-family zone as a place of worship.  Residents opposed the ordinance and the City stopped considering the ordinance in 2008.  Chabad then abandoned its plans to develop the property in the City’s single-family zone.

According to the plaintiffs, there were a number of secret meetings between the City and Chabad about development of another religious site on a different property located at 770 Palmetto Park Road in a separate zoning district in the Seaside Village neighborhood.  In 2008, the City enacted a new ordinance that added “places of worship” to the definition of “places of public assembly,” and applied to the Seaside Village site.  Places of public assembly now included:

Any area, building or structure where people assemble for a common purpose, such as social, cultural, recreational and/or religious purposes, whether owned and/or maintained by a for-profit or not-for-profit entity, and includes, but is not limited to, public assembly buildings such as auditoriums, theaters, halls, private clubs and fraternal lodges, assembly halls, exhibition halls, convention centers, and places of worship, or other areas, buildings or structures that are used for religious purposes or assembly of persons.

Seven years later, in 2015, Chabad completed its building plans for the Seaside Village property.  It proposed a two-story religious center with a meeting area, religious museum area, parking structure, social hall, children’s playroom, kitchen and bookstore.  The City approved the Chabad’s proposal and issued it two variances to develop the site.

The plaintiffs sued in federal court, alleging that the City violated the Establishment Clause by giving preferential treatment to Chabad in enacting the new ordinance.  The plaintiffs also alleged violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the Florida Constitution.  The District Court twice dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint because it found that the plaintiffs lacked standing.  The District Court reasoned that the harm the plaintiffs alleged they would suffer from the construction of the religious center (increased traffic, difficulty for emergency vehicle access, and change in the character of the area) were common to the whole community and not particularized to the plaintiffs.

During the course of the plaintiffs’ federal lawsuit, another lawsuit arose in state court between “[u]nrelated parties, for wholly different reasons.”  The state court ruled that the City had improperly approved Chabad’s religious center because the proposal included a “museum,” a term that was not included within the definition of “places of public assembly.”  The entire religious center – not just the museum aspect of it – was barred by the state court.

The only claim before the Eleventh Circuit was the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claim.  In light of the state court’s invalidation of the City’s approval, the Eleventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause challenge had been rendered moot: “Whether the Chabad will seek some other project, in some other form, at some other time, at this or some other location, remains to be seen.  We have indisputable evidence that this project is over.  And the complaint has offered not the slightest suggestion that a new Chabad project is in the works or being considered now by the City’s employees.  As we see it, this is a textbook case for mootness.”  In other words, there was no further relief that the federal court could provide the plaintiffs, given the state court’s decision invalidating the City’s approval of the religious center.

The decision in Gagliardi v. TJCV Land Trust, Docket No. 9:16-cv-80195 (11th Cir. 2018) is available here.

Chabad and Toms River Settle RLUIPA Suit

Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River, Inc. (“Chabad”) has settled its religious discrimination lawsuit against the Township of Toms River, New Jersey (“Township”), putting to rest its allegations that the Township violated each of RLUIPA’s provisions by requiring Chabad to obtain a variance to continue to use its property (“Property”) as a Chabad house, house of worship and religious school. We previously posted about this case here and here.

As part of the court’s entry of settlement, the Township will allow Chabad to operate a Chabad house at the Property, a term defined as “a residence for a rabbi and his family who are affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement within Chassidic Jewish tradition, and who engage in certain religious observances with other individuals at that location including Sabbath services, meals, religious classes, and Hebrew school classes.”  Chabad’s use of the Property is subject to conditions designed in part to protect public health and safety: (i) limiting the maximum number of people permitted for on-site events; (ii) requiring Chabad to inform guests of certain parking restrictions; and (iii) permitting Chabad to erect a sign on the Property, compliant with the Township’s existing bulk ordinance for signage.  In addition, the Township must dismiss all zoning and building citations issued against Chabad, and pay Chabad $122,500 for damages and attorney’s fees in connection with the federal litigation.

The United States Department of Justice has closed its investigation into the Township’s zoning practices.  Nicole Siegel, an attorney in the Justice Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Division, wrote: “In light of the resolution of that lawsuit and other documents and information provided by the township, and after considering the relevant facts and applicable law, we have decided not to take enforcement action pursuant to RLUIPA against the township.  Consequently, we have closed the investigation.”

The Court’s Order for Judgment in Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River, Inc. v. The Township of Toms River, Docket No. 3:16-01599 (District of New Jersey 2018) is available here.



New York State Trial Court: Supporting Trump is Not a Religion

New York Post reports that a New York state trial court judge tossed a discrimination lawsuit brought by Greg Piatek, a President Trump supporter, against a West Village bar.  According to the article, Piatek was told to leave the bar because he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat shortly after Trump took office.  According to Piatek, he was told: “Anyone who supports Trump – or believes in what you believe – is not welcome here!  And you need to leave right now because we won’t serve you!”  Piatek sued in Manhattan Supreme Court, alleging that being kicked out of the bar “offended his sense of being American.”  Piatek claimed that by wearing the hat he was paying spiritual tribute to the victims of 9/11, and that wearing the hat was part of his spiritual belief.  When asked by the judge how bar employees were supposed to know of Piatek’s unusual religious beliefs, Piatek’s lawyer responded: “They were aware he was wearing the hat.”  When pressed by the judge as to the number of members in the spiritual program, Piatek conceded that it is a creed of one.  The Court ruled that supporting President Trump is not a religion, and dismissed the lawsuit: “Plaintiff does not state any faith-based principle to which the hat relates.”

Original photograph by nevermindtheendsome rights reserved.

Federal Court Rejects Church’s Religious Land Use Claims Based on Government’s Legitimate Zoning Concerns

A federal court in Nevada has ruled that the denial of a church’s special use permit application to develop property with a house of worship did not violate RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, or state law.  Significantly, this case demonstrates the bedrock principle that land use agencies may deny zoning applications for religious use for legitimate zoning concerns.  In this case, the land use agency deemed the site in question inappropriate for a house of worship because it was adjacent to a dangerous intersection with existing traffic problems and would be incompatible with the quiet neighborhood.

The court’s rejection of the RLUIPA claim is also noteworthy for its treatment of substantial burden claims.  For one, the court examined whether there was any unnecessary delay in the zoning process or expense incurred by the religious group, and concluded that the short amount of time taken by the land use agency to render its decision (3 months) weighed against there being a substantial burden on religious exercise.  By comparison, another Ninth Circuit decision, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, 673 F.3d 1059 (9th Cir. 2011), found that the protracted, year-long process of public hearings and deliberations on zoning applications supported a RLUIPA violation.  Second, the court in the instant case found that because the religious group could seek permission to develop another property, there was no burden.  In other words, the Church did not allege that this was the only site available to it, meaning there may be other viable alternatives locations for it to use for religious worship.

The case involved Pentecostal Church of God (“Church”), which applied for a permit to build a church at 990 Riverview Drive in Douglas County, Nevada, in the single-family residential zoning district.  Although zoning staff recommended approving the Church’s application, the Douglas County Planning Commission (“Commission”) denied the application for failing to meet two provisions in the zoning code: (1) The project would not be “compatible with and preserve[] the character and integrity of adjacent development and neighborhoods” despite the “improvements or modifications [that would] mitigate development related adverse impacts;” and (2) The project would “generate pedestrian or vehicular traffic which will be hazardous or conflict with the existing and anticipated traffic in the neighborhood.”

The Church appealed the denial to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners (“Board”).  At the public hearing, neighborhood opponents voiced concern over the project’s impact on traffic, given the busy intersection adjacent to the property; the impact on the nature of the neighborhood; negative impacts on business, residential values, and the “quiet-nature of the community.”  The Board affirmed the Commission’s denial of the application.

The Church sued Douglas County and the Board, arguing that the denial of the application substantially burdened its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA.  The court distinguished the case from two other Ninth Circuit decisions – International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, 450 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2006).  The court concluded that the substantial burden claim failed given the speedy zoning process, lack of evidence of financial loss incurred by the Church, no allegation that other properties were not available for religious use, and legitimate zoning concerns regarding negative traffic impact in an already busy, and possibly dangerous, intersection.

The court also rejected the Church’s class-of-one equal protection claim because there was no evidence that the defendants intentionally targeted the Church.  Nor could the Church identify any similarly situated comparators that had been treated better by the defendants.  The Due Process claim failed because it was premised on violation of RLUIPA.  Finally, the court quickly dispelled the Church’s state law claim that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, considering the strong public opposition at the public hearing.

The decision in Pentecostal Church of God v. Douglas County, No. 3:16-cv-00400 (D. NV 2018) is available here.

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.