A little over a year ago, we reported on the case involving the O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal Church (UDV), which sought to build an 11,000 square foot temple on 2.5 acres of land (click here and here to read the posts). In accordance with its religious beliefs, the UDV drinks Amazonian tea that causes those who drink it to hallucinate. The Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County denied the application in part out of fear that the hallucinogenic tea would survive passage through septic tanks and contaminate the local water supply. Neighbors also opposed the application, citing as concerns public health, safety, and the UDV members’ use of the hallucinogenic tea. In response, UDV sued the County, claiming that its denial of the temple proposal violated its rights as protected by RLUIPA.
On November 13, 2012, the UDV and the County reached a settlement agreement to resolve the lawsuit. According to the County’s press release:
“Under the settlement UDV will dismiss its pending lawsuit against [the County] and waive any claims for damages. The order previously denying the application will be withdrawn and an order approving the application will be prepared for approval by the Board in a subsequent meeting. The settlement provides a number of measures to address the concerns of residents in relation to the construction of the proposed Temple. Among them are the following: (i) the County will provide water supply for the proposed Temple from the County utility; (ii) the County will provide an advanced sewage waste treatment; (iii) the UDV will conduct all of its services inside the proposed Temple and will limit activities as described in a document attached to the settlement agreement; (iv) the UDV will construct a wall to shield the neighbors from sounds and activities at the proposed Temple (including the sounds of automobiles and automobile lights).”
The water line and sewage treatment system that the County agreed to purchase for the temple would cost it $400,000. In addition, the County agreed to pay UDV an undisclosed amount of attorneys’ fees. To read the settlement approved by the County in public session, click here.
Several neighbors opposed to the temple sued the County about a month after it voted in public session to settle the lawsuit, objecting to the County spending $400,000 on the ground that it would be in violation of New Mexico’s anti-donation clause, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state protection. They also contend that approving the project would violate the County’s land use code.
On December 5, 2013, approximately one year after UDV and the County agreed to settle the case, the federal court accepted the agreement over the objections of neighbors. The neighbors filed an opposition to the entry of the settlement agreement, but the court found that because they had not sought to intervene in the case, and thus were not parties, it was not obligated to consider their objection. The court also denied the neighbors’ motion to consolidate the two cases. As part of the settlement entered by the court, the County must pay UDV $750,000 in attorneys’ fees, on top of the $400,000 it has already agreed to pay. To read the court’s order accepting the settlement, click here.
This case illustrates how expensive it may be for municipalities to settle RLUIPA litigation, which may be the better alternative to vigorously defending a claim when the outcome is uncertain and the potentially reimbursable plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees continue to mount. It is not clear how this settlement will affect the neighbors’ pending lawsuit or when construction of the temple will begin, but we’ll keep an eye out and report back. Please note the court’s point that the neighbors had not attempted to intervene.