In June 2014, Plaintiff Hope Rising Community Church sought to establish a place of worship in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. According to its complaint, Pastor Harry Hoff met with Penn Hill’s planning and code enforcement officials, discussed Hope Rising’s plan to locate at a warehouse in a non-residential zone, and was told Penn Hills had no objection to that use. After meeting with municipal officials, Hope Rising entered a three year lease and spent over $7,000 on renovations plus approximately $10,000 in donated material and equipment. In September 2014, the municipality, after inspection, issued Hope Rising an occupancy permit.
In January 2015, Penn Hills ordered that Hope Rising cease holding assembly services at the warehouse property. On March 9, Hope Rising applied for a variance but was denied after the Zoning Hearing Board, according to Hope Rising, “improperly inferr[ed] that the Church misled the City as to the use of the building….” Currently, Hope Rising is allowed to use the property for clothing distribution, a food bank, small meetings for church volunteers, and individual counseling. But it is still prohibited from conducting religious worship services at the property.
Hope Rising claims that since March 2015, it has been forced to meet in inadequate locations, significantly reducing attendance for religious services. Given Penn Hill’s enforcement notice and variance denial, Hope Rising claims it is substantially burdened in violation of RLUIPA. Hope Rising also pleads a facial RLUIPA Equal Terms violation. According to the complaint, churches and religious assemblies are allowed only as conditional uses within residential districts. Other non-religious assemblies and institutions such as lodges, clubs, meeting halls, educational institutions, planned industrial developments, parks and playgrounds are allowed by right in other zones within Penn Hills.
In a third RLUIPA claim, Hope Rising alleges a violation of RLUIPA’s Unreasonable Limitations provision. Additionally, Hope Rising claims a violation of Equal Protection under the U.S. Constitution and a violation of the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.
Approximately two weeks after filing its complaint, Hope Rising filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, claiming a high likelihood of success on both its RLUIPA Unreasonable Limitations and Equal Terms claims. It asserts that RLUIPA’s Unreasonable Limitations provision is violated when a municipal zoning ordinance does not allow places of worship in any zoning district by right. Further, Hope Rising claims that there is no property available in Penn Hill’s residential zones, the only zones where places of worship are conditionally allowed.
Hope Rising also claims a high likelihood of success on its Equal Terms claim, correctly noting that the Third Circuit uses a strict liability standard for Equal Terms violations—if religious uses are treated unequally, such diversity in treatment cannot be justified by a narrowly tailored, compelling government interest. (See Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, 510 F.3d 253, 266 (3d Cir. 2007)).