A federal court in Illinois, in Church of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ v. City of Markham, Illinois (N.D. Ill. 2015), dismissed some of the Church’s religious land use claims while allowing others to proceed. The case is important for a couple of reasons. First, it serves as a welcome reminder for local governments that “RLUIPA does not authorize any kind of relief against public employees.” Second, its interpretation and application of RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision appears to go against a recent Seventh Circuit decision applying the same provision in a prisoner case, Schlemm v. Wall (7th Cir. 2015).
The Church, which had been operating at its current location for 10 years “without issue,” brought the lawsuit after the City issued a summons for the Church to cease its operations due to safety violations or else obtain a conditional use permit. According to the Church, building and fire inspectors approved the Church’s use of the property, but the City’s Planning Board denied the Church a permit without explanation. The Church alleged violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden and nondiscrimination provisions, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, Illinois’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and other state law. The City of Markham, its mayor, and several of its aldermen were sued in their individual capacities and were named as defendants.
First, the Court dismissed all RLUIPA claims against the City’s mayor and aldermen because the statute does not authorize relief against public employees. See Vinning-El v. Evans, 657 F.3d 591, 592 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868 (7th Cir. 2009)). The Court also dismissed the RLUIPA nondiscrimination claim against the City. RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision provides that “[n]o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2). Because the Church failed to allege any facts to support its nondiscrimination claim, the Court dismissed this allegation.
Next, the Court considered, and declined to dismiss, the Church’s RLUIPA substantial burden claim. The Court noted that the availability of alternative locations for the Church to operate and the City’s reason for denying the Church’s permit were not clear and, therefore, dismissal of the substantial burden claim would be premature.
The Court’s interpretation of RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision is significant. As we reported in our prior post, the Seventh Circuit, in Schlemm, recently appeared to alter the substantial burden standard for courts considering claims within the circuit. Schlemm concluded that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Holt v. Hobbs and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., articulated a substantial burden standard “much easier to satisfy” than that used in another RLUIPA case, Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center, Inc. v. Woodboro (7th Cir. 2013) (“to be substantial, a burden must be ‘one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise … effectively impracticable.’”) (prior post about Eagle Cove available here). It is interesting to note that the Court did not even refer to Schlemm when allowing the Church’s substantial burden claim to proceed, and instead operated under the traditional standard used to assess such claims in the Seventh Circuit.
Because the RFRA and free exercise claims are subject to virtually the same analysis as the RLUIPA substantial burden claim, the Court also allowed those claims to proceed. The Court dismissed the Illinois Open Meeting Act claim as time-barred, but allowed the Church to move forward with its claim that the City’s decision was arbitrary and capricious in violation of Illinois’ constitution.