The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division reports the following in its February 2014 edition of Religious Freedom in Focus.
On December 30, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal of a Georgia mosque's suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the mosque reached a settlement with the City of Alpharetta and the City Council approved its expansion plans.
As reported in Volume 52, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief and argued before the trial court that the court below had erred in granting summary judgment to the city. After oral arguments in February 2013, the Court of Appeals ordered the parties to attempt to settle the dispute.
The case, Islamic Center of North Fulton v. City of Alpharetta, arose out of the city's denial of a permit for the Islamic Center to expand on a site it has occupied since 1998. The suit alleged that the denial of the permit imposed a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the mosque, which had outgrown its space as its congregation has grown. The suit also alleged violation of RLUIPA's nondiscrimination provisions, focusing on the county's approval of several similarly sized church projects in recent years.
In the appeal, the United States argued that the district court applied the wrong standard for "substantial burden" under RLUIPA, and should have examined "whether the denial of the permit, viewed against the totality of the circumstances, actually and substantially inhibits the Center's religious exercise, rather than merely inconveniencing it." The United States also argued that the trial court should have applied the standard laid out by the Supreme Court in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977), which looks at the totality of the circumstances, including procedural irregularities and differential outcomes of similar projects, in evaluating zoning discrimination claims.
The DOJ previously reported on this case in its June 2012 edition of Religious Freedom in Focus.
On June 12, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that a federal trial court erred in granting summary judgment to a Georgia city in a mosque's suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The suit, Islamic Center of North Fulton v. City of Alpharetta, arose out of the city's denial of a permit for the Islamic Center to expand on a site it has occupied since 1998.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise through application of zoning and landmarking laws. It also contains a section protecting the religious exercise of persons confined to institutions.
The Islamic Center of North Fulton currently worships in a 2,500 square foot mosque that it built after it acquired the property in 1998. Since then, its congregation has grown from 25 to approximately 600 members. It sought a permit in 2010 to build a 12,000 square foot mosque and a 1,910 square foot fellowship hall on the 4.2 acre site. The space was needed to have enough room for worship, facilities for ritual washing before prayer, spiritual counseling, a religious library, and youth activities. The Islamic Center identified several similarly sized church projects that the county has approved in recent years, and noted that it is comparable in size and neighborhood impact to two churches on the same road. After the County council denied the Islamic Center's application in May 2010, the Center filed a federal suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. On January 25, 2012, the court granted summary judgment for the County.
The United States' brief argues that the district court erred in the standard it used to evaluate the mosque's claim that the permit denial imposed a "substantial burden" on its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA Section 2(a), as well as its claim that it was subject to religious discrimination in violation of RLUIPA Section 2(b)(2).
For the substantial burden claim, the trial court held that the Center had not demonstrated that its members were "forced or coerced into abandoning, modifying, or violating their religious beliefs." Surveying the case law in the Eleventh Circuit, the United States concludes that this was an inappropriate standard. Rather, in evaluating substantial burden, a court should examine "whether the denial of the permit, viewed against the totality of the circumstances, actually and substantially inhibits the Center's religious exercise, rather than merely inconveniencing it." The center alleged facts that could show this, and thus their claim should be permitted to go to trial.
The United States' brief also contends that the trial court erred in holding that to prove religious discrimination under RLUIPA Section 2(b)(2), the Islamic Center must show that another place of worship that is "prima facie identical in all relevant respects" was treated more favorably. The district court found that while the Center had pointed to churches and a synagogue that were similar, they were not identical. The United States' brief argues that this was an inappropriate standard to use. Rather, the court should have used the standard the Supreme Court laid out for evaluating whether facially neutral zoning actions are in fact the result of racial discrimination in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977). Under Arlington Heights, courts perform "a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence as may be available," such as substantial disparate impact, procedural and substantive departures from norms, and the administrative history of the decision, to determine if discrimination was in fact the motivating factor. The United States' brief argues that under Arlington Heights, the court below should have examined all of the surrounding factors to determine whether religion was the motivating factor of the County's decision to deny the Islamic Center's permit.