River Hills Community Church of Sauk Prairie, Inc. (Church) has sued the Village of Sauk City, Wisconsin (City) under RLUIPA, the U.S. Constitution, and state law concerning the City’s refusal to permit it to use a building owned by a bank for religious assembly.

As alleged in its complaint, the Church was formed in 2005 and started out as a lunch gathering on the shores of Devil’s Lake and then transitioned to meeting in members’ backyards.  Its byline is “when you’ve given up on religion, but not on God, there’s River Hills.”  Aside from religious worship services, the Church provides child character development programing, a peer support group for new mothers, community meals to the lonely and homeless, and lessons on financial responsibility.

As the Church began to grow, it sought a larger space to accommodate its members.  It leased the Sauk Prairie Community Center, but left that space due to various problems, mostly involving scheduling conflicts.  From there, the Church leased for three years vacant space consisting of 20,000 square feet and then moved to the River Arts Center, where it has been conducting Sunday worship services ever since.  Since relocating to the River Arts Center, the Church has experienced a precipitous drop in attendance, from annual highs of 172 down to 104, a 40% reduction; even more in its ministry for children, slashed by nearly 80%.  Numerous parents have told the Church leaders they love its programing, but its facilities are inadequate for children.

At the same time, the Church rented other space in the City for office use and an activity center, as opposed to the River Arts Center space that it used for religious worship services.  When the Church learned that it would no longer be able to rent this space for office use and an activity center, it began to look for a permanent home.  “The Church has looked at every existing, available, possibly suitable building in Sauk City and in Prairie du Sac: a former library, warehouse, office buildings, but nothing has worked.”  Finally, the Church found a suitable location in the City owned by the Church’s bank, consisting of approximately 5,500 square feet on 2 acres of land (Property).  Notably, the Property is located immediately in front of the 20,000 square foot space it previously leased.

Churches are not permitted as-of-right in any of the City’s zoning districts; they are allowed only as conditional uses.  Because the specific zoning district in which the Property is located does not allow churches as a conditional use, the Church applied to rezone the Property so that it could apply for a conditional use permit.  Although the Church paid the $500 conditional use application fee, the City decided that it would be wiser to amend the zoning ordinance to allow churches in the specific zone.  Nevertheless, the City rejected the proposed amendment, which would have allowed church uses as conditional uses in all residential, business, and industrial districts.

The Church alleges that the City’s zoning code violates RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision in that churches must have a minimum lot size of 2 acres of land while other conditional public assembly uses – community centers, libraries, cultural use/centers, governmental uses, clubs, funeral homes, fraternities, lodges, and non-commercial meeting places – have no minimum lot size.  It also alleges violations of RLUIPA’s total exclusion and unreasonable limitations provisions on the grounds that the City has impermissibly excluded and unreasonably limited churches from locating within the City.  It claims that the City’s actions have also substantially burdened its religious exercise by causing delay, uncertainty and expense and by causing the size of its membership to suffer.  The Church’s federal constitutional claims include violations of the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the Equal Protection Clause.  It also alleges violations under Wisconsin law.  The Church seeks injunctive relief, and declarations that the City’s actions and its zoning code violate RLUIPA, compensatory damages, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

On January 31, 2014, the District Court entered an order allowing the Church to “use and occupy the Property for religious assembly (church use) immediately after the Church closes its contract to purchase the Property on or about January 31, 2014, during the pendency of this litigation and until the conclusion of the above-captioned proceeding, whether by settlement, final judgment, or any other means.”  However, “[i]n the event that it is determined that plaintiff is not entitled to use the Property for religious assembly (church use) upon conclusion of the above-captioned proceeding by an order which is non-appealable or not appealed, plaintiff will upon 30-days notice cease using the Property for such purposes.”

If the City chooses to vigorously defend against the Church’s claims, it appears that it will be in for protracted and costly litigation.  On top of paying its own legal fees, the City may also have to pay the Church’s legal fees if the Church prevails.  When faced with these types of claims, municipalities may wish to consider whether it would be wiser to explore whether a compromise can be reached with the religious institution that, while seeking to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the community, would also avoid potentially costly and emotionally-charged litigation.

The District Court’s order can be accessed here.  The Church’s Complaint can be accessed here.