On May 7, the City of Plano, Texas issued a cease and desist order to Agape Resource and Assistance Center, Inc., alleging that Agape was in violation of the City’s zoning ordinance (read the order here). A month later, the City revoked the order after Agape sent the City a demand letter threatening to sue under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RLUIPA, and the state and federal constitutions, unless the City would allow Agape to continue to use its property according to its religious precepts (read the demand letter here).
Agape is a “faith-based holistic servant ministry of peace and justice committed to serve urgent unmet shelter and service needs of women, their children and dependents, and unaccompanied youth in poverty and crisis,” and believes that God has called upon it to minister to as many women and children in need as possible. Agape provides various services – including food, fellowship, and ministry – to vulnerable women and children in group homes it operates.
Plano’s zoning ordinance requires that “household care facilities” provide residence to no more than 8 persons and 2 caregivers. Agape complies with this ordinance.
The zoning ordinance also requires that care services be provided only to individuals who are residents of the specific group home facility, as it defines “household care facility” to mean:
A dwelling unit that provides residence and care to not more than eight persons, regardless of legal relationship, who are elderly; disabled; orphaned, abandoned, or neglected children; victims of domestic violence; or rendered temporarily homeless due to fire, natural disaster, or financial setbacks, living together with no more than two caregivers as a single household.
See Zoning Ordinance, Section 1.600. Agape concedes that it does not comply with this ordinance because it sometimes provides counseling and Bible study from one group home to women and children who reside at one of its other group homes. Agape claims it is “commanded by God and the Bible to bring all of the residents it serves in all of its homes together from time-to-time for a gathering that includes food, fellowship, faith-based and life instruction and a sense of community and wholeness for the resident women and children.” The City sought to prevent Agape from providing these services to non-residents, even though these non-residents lived in other Agape-run homes.
Agape’s demand letter asserts that enforcement of this ordinance by the City would violate RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, since Agape would be forced to violate its religious beliefs and the City is without a compelling governmental interest to enforce the ordinance. It also claims that the City had singled it out in violation of RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision because the City allows “household occupations,” which allows counseling services to both residents and non-residents in all residential zones as-of-right. And, because the City's zoning ordinance prohibits "women and children in Agape homes from meeting together for one night a month in one home" while “there is nothing that prohibits any home in Plano from hosting a Super Bowl party, a Tupperware party or any other type of birthday or anniversary gathering," Agape alleged was further proof of unequal treatment.
On June 12, the City revoked its order: “It has come to the department’s attention that the aforementioned Notice was issued in error and should therefore be disregarded. Please accept our apology for the misunderstanding.” The City’s letter of revocation is available here.
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