The City of St. Johns, Michigan is facing a lawsuit – Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns, Michigan, Docket No. 1:14-cv-00149 (W.D. Mich. 2014) – as a result of an amendment to its zoning ordinance to prohibit donation bins throughout the City. The City justifies its actions on the ground that several “for-profit companies” were operating donation bins in the City without first obtaining permission to do so. The Ordinance states that its purpose is to prevent blight, protect property values, avoid nuisances and criminal activity, and ensure the safe and sanitary maintenance of properties in the City.
The City is not being sued by a for-profit corporation; instead, it is being sued by Planet Aid, a non-profit corporation whose mission it is to reduce poverty and aid vulnerable children. Planet Aid seeks to achieve its mission in part by placing donation bins at various sites in Michigan and other states at which it collects clothing, shoes, and textiles. It then sells the donated items and uses the proceeds to fund development programs in impoverished communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
In furtherance of its mission, in December 2012, Planet Aid placed donation bins at two locations in the City. Approximately one month later, the City demanded that the donation bins be removed because they allegedly constituted a “nuisance.” In February 2013, the City removed the bins and refused to allow Planet Aid to challenge its findings through an appeal to an administrative agency. In December 2013, the City discussed a proposed ordinance to prohibit the operation of donation bins within the City. The Ordinance passed on January 27, 2014 and prohibits any organization – for-profit and non-profit – from operating donation bins within the City.
Notably, the Ordinance includes a “grandfather” clause to exempt donations bins that existed prior to its adoption. Because Planet Aid’s donation bins were removed by the City prior to the adoption of the Ordinance, it is unable to take advantage of the “grandfather” clause.
Planet Aid argues that the City’s actions violate both the state and federal constitutions. It alleges that the Ordinance is unconstitutional because it prohibits Planet Aid from receiving charitable donations, an activity protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Charitable organizations that operate permanent structures, such as Salvation Army and Goodwill, are unaffected by the Ordinance and can solicit and accept charitable donations.
Planet Aid seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to enjoin the City from prohibiting the operation of donation bins. Argument is scheduled for April 29, 2014.
Although this case does not involve a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the mission of many religious institutions is to provide free food, clothing, and other charitable services to the poor and homeless. Many do so through the use of donation bins such as those outlawed by St. Johns, Michigan. Planet Aid’s lawsuit may serve as an important reminder for municipalities to first consider whether their contemplated actions may be susceptible to RLUIPA and/or constitutional challenges and, second, whether they have a compelling governmental interest to justify such actions. If municipalities fail to fully understand the risks associated with their actions, they may be in for a costly legal battle.