On September 24, Rock Church of Easton (Rock Church) filed an “Emergency Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and /or Preliminary Injunction” against the City of Easton, Pennsylvania (the City or Easton) and its Bureau of Codes and Inspections.  Rock Church seeks a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to stop the City from enforcing “local code and property management ordinances” against Rock Church and its non-profit subsidiary corporation, Church Redevelopment Corporation (CRC).party wall

According to Rock Church, “property acquisition and renovation, through CRC as the designated property manager, is a core part of its religious mission of community development and restoration to provide people in need with help and families in distress with security and hope in a close knit community of Church members as leasehold tenant.”  Since 1979, CRC and the Church have purchased approximately 20 properties and rehabilitated 16 through member donations and construction efforts.

The controversy between Rock Church and Easton began in 1994 when the building directly abutting CRC’s property at 505-507 Northampton Street (the Property) was demolished.  According to Rock Church, the demolition was incomplete and has left part of the wall of the demolished building standing against the west wall of the Property.  Rock Church claims that the City’s failure to enforce its demolition ordinance has caused damage to the Property, the very same damage “which the city has been and continues to predatorily execute code violations against Plaintiffs….”

In its brief in opposition to Plaintiffs’ motion, the City contends that any problems associated with the wall (instability, detaching façade) are the responsibility of CRC and Rock Church and that these Plaintiffs have already accepted responsibility for the wall through their previous actions.  Additionally, the City is concerned with health and safety violations at the Property unrelated to the wall and has issued violations “concerning sanitation, storage, and insects and rats.”  The City also cites concerns not only for the Property, but also CRC’s property at 501-503 Northampton Street.

In addition to the factual contentions raised in the City’s brief, it claims (1) the court lacks jurisdiction because Plaintiffs never filed a complaint; (2) the court should abstain from hearing Rock Church’s motion because the parties are already embroiled in a criminal proceeding where Rock Church and CRC are facing criminal citations for property violations; and (3) the Plaintiffs cannot establish irreparable injury because Plaintiffs have a right to assert any available defenses in the criminal action and have a right to appeal from any decision thereof.

This case presents some interesting new questions regarding the scope of RLUIPA.  Is CRC a religious institution?  Can the provision of low income housing constitute religious exercise?  We know that money-raising efforts, where the capital is used for religious exercise, are not protected under RLUIPA (See “Sale of Property for Secular Use Does Not Constitute Religious Exercise.”)  As far as the authors of RLUIPA Defense are aware (dedicated readers please inform us if you are otherwise aware) the provision of rental housing has never been raised as a potential religious exercise in the RLUIPA context.

Of course, we will continue to monitor this case.  Rock Church’s motion is available here and the City’s opposition is available here.

Original photography by Paul Simpson, Licensed