Plaintiff Hope Rising Community Church is one step closer to obtaining a preliminary injunction against Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, as U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell issued a Report and Recommendation to allow the Church to use certain property for religious assembly and worship.  The Magistrate Judge found that the Church “is likely to succeed on its RLUIPA Equal Terms claim.”  For more background on the case, see our earlier post about the filing of this lawsuit. 

The subject property is located in Penn Hill’s Light Industrial District.  While religious institutions are allowed as conditional uses in residential districts, they and are not allowed by right in any district.   Unlike religious institutions, educational institutions and parks and playgrounds are permitted uses in a Light Industrial District.

Hope Rising argued that it was entitled to an injunction based on its RLUIPA Equal Terms and Unreasonable Limitations claims.  First considering the Unreasonable Limitations claim, the court recognized that religious assemblies are not allowed by right in any district, but found that “limiting churches to a conditional use in residential districts does not unreasonably limit religious assembly because this restriction does not foreclose a church’s right to assemble.”

Next, relying on the Third Circuit’s decision in Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, 510 F.3d 253, 266 (3d Cir. 2007), the Magistrate Judge noted “that ‘the relevant analysis under the equal terms provision of RLUIPA must take into account the regulation’s objectives: a regulation will violate the equal terms provision only if it treats religious assemblies or institutions less well than secular assemblies or institutions that are similarly situated as to the regulatory purpose.”  The Magistrate Judge also found that parks, playgrounds and educational institutions are “assemblies” for the purposes of an RLUIPA equal terms analysis.  According to the Magistrate Judge, Penn Hills “failed to show how a religious institution would cause greater harm to the Light Industrial District and its objectives than parks, playgrounds and educational institutions.”

After concluding that Hope Rising had already suffered irreparable harm given its temporary loss of First Amendment freedoms, the court recommended issuance of the preliminary injunction.  On November 10, Penn Hills filed written objections to the Report and Recommendation, arguing that it was improper to conclude that parks, playgrounds and educational institutions are appropriate nonsecular comparators.  Additionally, Penn Hills contends that the plaintiff is required to provide specific proof  of irreparable harm given Third Circuit case law.