In March 2009, the City of Brewer, Maine granted the Rock Church of Greater Bangor, Inc. a building permit to renovate space and operate a church in 4,500 square feet of a building it leased from Dana Cassidy, a shopping center owner. The Church received its certificate of occupancy in 2011 and began conducting religious services at that location. As the Churchs congregation grew in size, it entered into discussions with the shopping center owner to lease additional building space to accommodate its growing congregation. In February 2012, the Church agreed to pay $7,000 per month to lease 14,000 square feet in the same building, more than triple the square footage the Church had previously leased. The City, however, denied the Churchs building permit application and, in March 2012, the Church withdrew from its agreement and relocated elsewhere. Cassidy sued the City under RLUIPAs unequal terms, discrimination, and unreasonable limitations clauses in the Federal District Court for the District of Maine.
In September 2012, a Federal Magistrate judge, issued a recommended decision, addressing the shopping center owners standing to bring claims under RLUIPA: “Although I agree with Plaintiff that there is no wholesale bar against him serving as a plaintiff in a RLUIPA action, I nevertheless conclude that third-party standing rules stand in the way of Plaintiff serving in that capacity in this action because an award of money damages and a declaratory judgment from this Court would do nothing to vindicate Rock Churchs alleged right to freely exercise religion with an expanded space in Plaintiffs commercial building.” The Magistrate Judge also found that the shopping center owners claim was not ripe for review.
In November 2012, the Federal District Court found that, as recommended by the Magistrate Judge, the shopping center owners claims were not ripe for review. The Court found that the Churchs failure to appeal the decision of the code enforcement officer to the zoning board of appeals would not prove futile because the zoning board may or may not have agreed with the code enforcement officer that the Churchs planned expansion would cause it to lose its previously grandfathered status of a nonconforming use. Because the Church had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the shopping center owners claims.
Although the Federal District Court did not reach the issue of standing, it observed:
“This commercial landlord plaintiff, who is not a religious institution and whose church tenant has abandoned his lease, does not meet those requirements in bringing this RLUIPA challenge against the City of Brewer. But there are cases that read RLUIPAs language as requiring that a plaintiff meet only the Article III standing requirement and not the additional prudential requirements. See, e.g., Oblates of St. Josephs v. Nichols, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27671, at *21 (E.D. CA 2002) (“It seems clear that as to plaintiffs claims under [RLUIPA], Congress intended to eliminate prudential standing requirements.”); Dixon v. Town of Coats” 2010 WL 2347506, at *4 (E.D.N.C. 2010) (same); c.f. United States v. Adeyemo, 624 F.Supp. 2d 1081, 1085 (N.D. CA 2008) (interpreting identical language in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 2000bb-1(c), and holding that only Article III standing requirements need be met).””
We will keep close watch as to whether the shopping center owner appeals the decision of the Federal District Court to the First Circuit. For now, you can read the Magistrate Judges recommended decision here and the Federal District Court decision here.