Can a municipality violate RLUIPA in complying with a court order? The United States Department of Justice apparently thinks so and has gone after Rutherford County, Tennessee.
In May 2010, the Countys Regional Planning Commission approved the Islamic Center of Murfereesboros site plan application to construct a 52,000 square foot facility, consisting of a mosque and spaces for religious education, counseling, and other activities, on a 15-acre parcel in a residential district. After the County approved the site plan, local residents sued the County in state court in September 2010, seeking a temporary restraining order enjoining the construction of the mosque and claiming, among other things, that the County violated Tennessees Open Meeting Act by failing to provide adequate notice of the meeting at which the site plan application was considered and approved. While the state court denied the residents request for a temporary restraining order, it agreed with the residents that the County violated Tennessees Open Meeting Act and voided the Countys approval of the Islamic Centers site plan application.
The Court found that the Act imposes additional notice requirements where “significant business is discussed at an otherwise routine public meeting.” When significant business is discussed, said the Court, notice of the specific issue to be decided, and not just notice of a “regular meeting, ” as the County provided, is required. The Court found that consideration of the Islamic Centers site plan amounted to significant business requiring greater notice than had been provided by the County.
While the state court case was pending, construction of the mosque continued, until its completion in July of 2012. When the Islamic Center requested a certificate of occupancy, however, the County refused.
The reason for the Countys refusal? It sought to comply with the state court decision voiding the Countys approval of the site plan.
Once the DOJ got word of this, it sued the County alleging a violation of RLUIPA due to the Countys refusal to issue a certificate of occupancy for the mosque (click here to read the DOJs complaint). The DOJ quickly obtained a temporary restraining order to expedite issuance of the certificate in time for members of the Islamic Center to observe Ramadan upon the Courts finding that the DOJ was likely to prevail on its claims (click here to read the Courts decision) The County granted a temporary certificate on August 7 and a permanent certificate on August 23. On August 10, the Islamic Center held its first worship services.
When the local residents who prevailed in state court against the County learned of the DOJs lawsuit, they moved to intervene. On August 29, 2012, the federal court found that the residents were entitled to intervene both as of right and permissively due to, among other things, the residents interest in “the finality of the Chancery Courts Orders finding that Rutherford County failed to comply with the Tennessee Open Meeting Act . . . ” and because “there exists a common question of law or fact, specifically, the interplay between the Chancery Courts Orders and the Governments claim that Rutherford Countys following of those Orders led to a RLUIPA violation. ” To read the Courts decision granting intervention, click here.
This case is far from over, but it still provides an important example of the intractable dilemmas municipalities may face when presented with a religious organizations proposal for construction, expansion, or modification of a house of worship or related facility. Can a municipality violate RLUIPA by following the state courts decision? Would an appeal of the state court decision have been more appropriate than bringing a federal lawsuit? If the DOJ prevails, should the County be on the hook for attorneys fees following the Courts decision? Only time will tell. For now, file this under “damned if you do and damned if you dont. “