In Holy Ghost Revival Ministries v. City of Marysville (W.D. Washington), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington considered claims of religious discrimination brought by Holy Ghost Revival Ministries (“Holy Ghost”) in connection with its transitional group housing for released convicts, many of whom are recovering addicts and sex offenders. Holy Ghost alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Fair Housing Act, and other state and federal law claims. The Court granted the City’s motion to dismiss several of Holy Ghost’s claims, proving once again that RLUIPA, RFRA, and FHA are no trump cards, and that local governments need not capitulate when the facts and the law are on their side.
Holy Ghost asserts that providing low-cost transitional housing in group residences is a form of religious exercise because its residents receive “teachings grounded in scripture,” are referred to as “church members,” and state that “spiritual growth and adherence to scripture by this particular population of the Holy Ghost Church’s membership is best achieved … in a group living situation where all strive to do the Lord’s will.” It operates 10 group houses in Snohomish County, which it calls “Mack Houses,” named after the group’s pastors John and Jane Mack. Six of these Mack Houses are located in Marysville, one of which is used to store “large vehicles” and another primarily as an office building for Holy Ghost.
In 2013, the City issued Holy Ghost an enforcement order stating that the storage of large vehicles violated the zoning code. Holy Ghost received another enforcement order stating that it violated the zoning code because one of its other Mack Houses was situated on a parcel zoned for general commercial use. A hearing examiner considered the enforcement orders and concluded that Holy Ghost was in violation of the zoning code. As a result of this decision, Holy Ghost temporarily closed one of the subject Mack Houses to renovate it and bring it into compliance. During this time, it provided housing to some of its members, but other members were displaced. After renovations were completed, an unspecified number of Holy Ghost members resumed living at the property. Holy Ghost continued to store large vehicles at the other property.
RLUIPA Substantial Burden
Holy Ghost alleged the City’s actions substantially burdened its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA. It asserted that (1) the enforcement action forced it to shut down the Mack House for a period of time; (2) some of its members were displaced during that time; and (3) that it had since renovated its property to comply with the hearing examiner’s decision.
The Court dismissed the substantial burden claim for several reasons. First, Holy Ghost failed to explain how many of its members it is now able to provide with housing at the renovated property or what the renovations entailed, much less how this imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise. Second, “the mere fact [Holy Ghost] had to renovate one of the ten houses in some unknown fashion in order to continue housing residents at that location is not a burden that is ‘oppressive to a significantly great extent.’” Third, the Court noted that Holy Ghost had “fail[ed] to allege that enforcement of the zoning ordinance in fact caused them to provide housing to fewer individuals than before, let alone that ‘no other suitable sites exist’ for their operations.”
RLUIPA Equal Terms
Unlike the substantial burden claim, the Court concluded that Holy Ghost had properly pleaded an equal terms claim and allowed that claim to proceed: “Because the complaint alleges that the Mack Houses, which are religious institutions, were singled out by the City for enforcement of the zoning code, the court concludes that [Holy Ghost] … adequately alleged treatment on a less than equal basis with secular comparators, such as other group housing institutions.”
Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)
Holy Ghost’s RFRA claim was dismissed because it was premised on municipal law rather than federal law. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, that RFRA was unconstitutional as applied to the states. Holy Ghost’s RFRA claim failed because it was premised on municipal law; not federal law.
Fair Housing Act (FHA)
Holy Ghost’s FHA claim alleged that the City had refused to make reasonable accommodations. This claim was rejected because Holy Ghost had failed to allege the proposed accommodation it sought and whether it was reasonable. Nor did the complaint allege that an accommodation was needed to place Holy Ghost’s handicapped residents on an equal footing with non-handicapped residents. While Holy Ghost also pointed to extrinsic evidence to support a disparate treatment claim on the basis of religion, the Court refused to consider such evidence in the context of the City’s motion to dismiss. Although the Court dismissed the FHA claim, it granted leave to Holy Ghost to amend its complaint to potentially cure the FHA claim.
To review the rest of Holy Ghost’s state and federal law claims, the decision may be accessed here.