The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, approximately two weeks after it denied Livingston Christian Schools’ (“LCS” or “School”) request for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”), has issued a written decision that explains why Genoa Charter Township, Michigan’s (“Township”) denial of a permit that would allow LCS to operate a private school is unlikely to substantially burden its religious exercise. As we reported previously, LCS had entered into a lease with Brighton Church of the Nazarene to use the Church’s property as a religious school.
LCS claims that the building it had used for the past nine years is not large enough for its current needs. Denial of the Church’s application, according to the School, has substantially burdened its religious exercise, as well as the religious exercise of its students. Five days after commencing suit, the School filed an emergency motion for a TRO to allow it to use the leased property to begin the new school year. But after filing its emergency motion, the School found another location and entered into a short-term lease.
On August 31, the Court denied the School’s emergency motion without a written decision. On September 15, the Court issued a written decision, primarily detailing why LCS is unlikely to prove it was substantially burdened.
First, the court concluded that LCS does have standing to challenge the denial of the Church’s special use permit. Although LCS was not the applicant, the “denial of the church’s amended special use permit directly impacts LCS’s ability to operate its school at the location it desires.”
Next, the court considered the merits of LCS’s RLUIPA claim and whether it had a strong likelihood of success in showing the permit denial caused a substantial burden. The court relied heavily on the reasoning provided in Living Water Church of God v. Charter Twp. of Meridian, 258 F. App’x 729 (6th Cir. 2007):
Applying the substantial burden standard articulated in Living Water, LCS is required to show that, “though the government action may make religious exercise more expensive or difficult, . . . the government action place[s] substantial pressure on [it] to violate its religious beliefs or effectively bar[s] [it] from using its property in the exercise of its religion[.]” …. At this juncture, LCS has not made a strong showing of a substantial burden. LCS can still operate its school at the Pinckney location, and, more recently, has found a second location where it plans to operate for the 2015-16 school year.
Further, when “it may be less convenient or more expensive for LCS to operate its school from a different location, Living Water instructs that this does not equal a substantial burden on LCS’s ability to freely exercise its religious tenets.” Since LCS had “ready alternatives” to operate its religious school, the Township’s denials is unlikely to burden its religious exercise.
Will the recent decision encourage the parties to seek an out of court settlement? Prior to the written decision, LCS firmly stated that it continued to incur damages in the form of rental payments and had experienced “significant de-enrollment” that has caused a loss in tuition: expenses, plus attorneys’ fees, it seeks to recover in this case.
The Court’s decision in Livingston Christian Schools v. Genoa Charter Township (E.D. MI 2015) is available here.