In Ondrisek v. Hoffman (8th Cir. 2012), the Eighth Circuit reaffirmed an important principle concerning the limitations on the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment although the First Amendment entitles one to the free exercise of religion, it does not entitle one to exercise religious beliefs that cause injury to others. In Ondrisek, the plaintiff, Tony Alamo, attempted to justify beating members of his cult by asserting that such actions were simply the free exercise of his religious beliefs. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the decision of the trial court finding Alamo liable for battery and other crimes.

“Alamo was the leader of a religious group, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries (TACM). He controlled members finances and prohibited them from traveling or speaking to outsiders unless it was to witness. Children were not allowed to attend public schools, watch television, or listen to the radio. They were told not to trust anyone, especially government officials or police. Alamo regularly recorded messages telling followers that if they left the group, they would become homosexuals and go to hell. Followers were afraid to question Alamo; those who did were often beaten. . . .

“Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna were raised in TACM. They were forced to work without pay starting at the age of 8. Alamo began threatening to beat Ondrisek when he was 11. Alamo told him that if he disobeyed, he would be enlisted in the military and shot and killed. When he was 12, Alamo had an ‘enforcer’ severely beat him because he made a small tunnel while hauling dirt for the church. As Ondrisek received discipline of 15 to 20 blows to his face, Alamo made his father watch. Ondrisek then received 20 to 30 strikes from a paddle that was three feet long, an inch-and-a-half thick, and three or four inches wide. He was unable to sit for several days and was not allowed to attend services because the swelling on his face was too visible. Two years later Alamo had Ondrisek beaten again for horseplay. He sustained 15 to 20 hits to his mouth, beginning to bleed after the second blow. He also received 30 to 40 paddles (maybe more), causing severe bruising that did not fully heal for several weeks. He has permanent scarring from the beating. At 15, Ondriseks schooling stopped, and he began working on the churchs property 70 hours a week. He was forced to attend services and listen to Alamos recordings daily. As punishment for falling asleep as a night watchman, Alamo required him to fast two days, giving him only water. At 16 or 17, Ondrisek was beaten for a third time after being falsely accused of bullying. He was slapped 20 or more times in the face, and paddled 40 times. Ondrisek blacked out, but no one took him to a hospital. His hand was severely injured and still causes him pain. . . .

“Calagnas youth at TACM was similar to Ondriseks. When he was 14, Calagnas parents woke him at 4 a.m. to have him beaten. He was hit so hard he vomited. His face was unrecognizable afterwards; his injuries took weeks to heal. Less than a month later, he witnessed his father get beaten, causing him emotional distress. He was beaten again at 17 for talking about ‘Harry Potter.’ He was struck until the paddle broke and then hit again with a larger board. In addition to physical abuse, both boys experienced verbal abuse. They both contemplated suicide, ‘unable to imagine that death would be worse.’ At 18, Ondrisek and Calagna escaped TACM separately. They still have trouble sleeping, experiencing nightmares and flashbacks. Alamo is currently serving a 175-year sentence for 10 counts of transporting minors across state lines for illicit sex. . . . “

Some of you may ask how this case is at all relevant to RLUIPA. After all, what amounts to religious exercise under the First Amendment is something slightly different than under RLUIPA. Under the First Amendment, courts consider whether the faith “occupies a place in the lives of its members ‘parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God’ in religions more widely accepted in the United States.” Morrison v. Garraghty, 239 F.3d 648, 658 (4th Cir. 2001). Further, “[i]n evaluating whether a religious belief is religious in nature, the courts must take care [to] avoid any predisposition toward conventional religions so that unfamiliar faiths are not branded mere secular beliefs.” Mitchell v. Angelone, 82 F.Supp. 2d 485, 490 (E.D. VA 1999). Religious exercise, arguably, is defined more broadly under RLUIPA as: “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” It further provides that “[t]he use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise shall be considered to be religious exercise of the person or entity that uses or intends to use the property for that purpose.”

Be that as it may, in cases involving claims brought under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA, the courts sometimes engage in a single inquiry as to whether ones purported beliefs amount to the exercise of religion. See Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield, 819 F.Supp.2d 604, 623 (E.D. VA 2011) (“For the same reasons that the Court finds that Moore-King has not established that she is engaged in religious exercise for purposes of the Free Exercise Clause, the Court finds that she has not established that she is engaged in religious exercise for purposes of RLUIPA.”).

Would a government be justified in denying a religious institution permission to build a place of assembly if central to its belief system was physical discipline that hurt people? What if the religious institution had other beliefs as well, ones that were not harmful to others? The application of this case to RLUIPA is worth watching and those issues deserve further discussion.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.