Last week, we reported on the case of Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs in which the Citys amended zoning ordinance distinguishes between religious and non-religious uses, prohibiting “[c]hurches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other religious facilities” from the newly-established “Business Courthouse Square District,” where the church wishes to lease a larger facility it claims is necessary to fulfill its religious beliefs. The Fifth Circuit vacated the decision of the trial court to deny the churchs preliminary injunction motion, and remanded it to the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on considerations relevant to its preliminary injunction analysis: (1) whether Opulent Life was substantially likely to succeed on the merits of its claim and (2) whether the threatened injury outweighs any damage the injunction may cause the City (you may recall that the Fifth Circuit already found that Opulent Life had established a substantial threat of irreparable harm under the ordinance). To read the prior posting about this case, click here. On remand, the trial court, after conducting an evidentiary hearing, granted Opulent Lifes renewed motion for a preliminary injunction to prohibit the City from enforcing the ordinance.
In considering whether Opulent Life is substantially likely to succeed on the merits of its RLUIPA Equal Terms Clause claim, the trial court notes: “To bear its burden, Holly Springs must first identify the regulatory purpose or zoning criterion that explains the religious facilities ban, as stated explicitly in the text of the ordinance, and then show that it has treated religious facilities on equivalent terms as nonreligious institutions that are similarly situated with respect to that stated purpose or criterion.” The stated purpose of the ordinance “is to designate the area fronting on the Marshall County Courthouse Square for certain retail, office and service uses which will complement the historic nature and traditional function of the court square area as the heart of the community life.” The trial court found that the Citys justification fails because other non-commercial, non-tax-generating uses are permitted in the district.
The trial court also found that the City failed to carry its burden of presenting “powerful evidence of harm to its interests” that would result from the granting of the injunction:
“Rather than present powerful evidence of harm to its interests, the City hardly made any showing at all. During a hearing held on October 18, 2012, the extent of the Citys proof was to produce the ordinance itself and to call Pastor Telsa DeBerry as an adverse witness. Testimony from an adverse witness and entry of the ordinance as an exhibit does not even address what harm to the Citys interests might occur should this court grant a preliminary injunction.”
Trial in this matter is set for April 8, 2013. In the meantime, click here to read the trial courts decision.