Plaintiff, New Life Evangelistic Center, Inc., (“New Life”), an interdenominational Christian Church formed in 1972 by Reverend Larry Rice, recently sued the City of St. Louis, Missouri (the “City”) in the Eastern District of Missouri. According to the complaint, New Life operated out of a 50-foot trailer in the early 1970’s, rapidly grew, and then purchased a five-story YMCA building in 1975. By 1976, the Church received a hotel permit, authorizing 32 beds, and began offering religious services and emergency shelter for the homeless. Presently, New Life provides shelter to approximately 250, sometimes reaching 300, individuals a night. Its sheltering programs include 14-day or 30-day basic shelter, a 30-day transitional housing program, a 90-day program for women and veterans, as well as a two-year “leadership” program for individuals who volunteer full-time at New Life in exchange for free room and board.
New Life’s claims are based on a December 23, 2014 decision by the City’s Board of Public Service (“BPS”) that New Life constitutes a “detriment to the neighborhood.” BPS later issued an order stating that New Life’s hotel permit will be revoked on May 12, 2015 if New Life does not demonstrate, 30-days prior to that date, that it has reduced occupancy to 32 beds or has received all necessary permits and licenses to operate a larger facility. The City’s actions were prompted by a petition it received pursuant to Chapter 11.72.010 of the St. Louis revised Code, under which a majority of residents within 300 feet of a boarding house, rooming house, dormitory, or hotel may petition BPS to find the property is a “detriment to the neighborhood.”
In its complaint, New Life challenges BPS’s finding that its witnesses at the public hearing conducted by BPS “were not credible.” It also seems to make an estoppel or waiver argument claiming that the City knew, since 1976, that New Life operated an emergency shelter substantially larger than 32 beds and considered at least 28 plumbing, electrical, and building permits submitted by New Life in 1993. Yet, the City did not, it alleges, in 1993 or at any other time, raise any issue about the number of occupants at the shelter. In Count I of its complaint, New Life alleges that BPS’s decision violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. It also claims violations of the Missouri and the United States Constitutions (freedom of speech, assembly, and free exercise) as well as violation of the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
New Life also seeks a preliminary injunction to allow it to continue to operate its homeless shelter during the litigation. In its memorandum of law in support of its motion, New Life argues that turning away the homeless from its shelter would only make the issues raised by residents worse because some of those individuals may now seek shelter on the streets. It also contends that the City has many alternative means to address the purported “nuisance” conditions, including heightened enforcement of municipal noise and loitering codes. This argument has particular bite after the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, where the Court considered RFRA, RLUIPA’s sister statute, addressing the least restrictive means standard applied to a substantial burden imposed in attempting to further a compelling governmental interest.
Although the Supreme Court has thus far refused to consider RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision in the land use context, it is clear that litigants have gleaned guidance from the Court’s RFRA and prisoner cases. As noted in our recent post concerning the Harbor Missionary Church case, the Ninth Circuit is positioned to soon rule on the potential impact of Hobby Lobby in the land use context. It has not taken long for RLUIPA plaintiffs to push for a favorable reading of both Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs, particularly when a local government must justify its actions with a compelling interest advanced in the least restrictive means based on the particular context of a given case. Local governments may wish to keep a close watch on this case and Harbor Missionary Church to see how, if at all, these courts interpret the Supreme Court’s observation in Hobby Lobby that the onus may be on the government to spend more money and go above and beyond to reduce potential burdens on religious applicants so as to demonstrate that government has indeed used the least restrictive means.