A predominantly African American Church of about 25 members known as My Father’s House Ministry, Inc. (Church) is suing Delanco Township, New Jersey over allegations that the Township violated both the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the U.S. Constitution by denying the Church’s application for a use variance.

The Church used to operate out of a hotel in Westhampton, New Jersey but found that the space impeded its religious mission in several ways, including lack of privacy, inadequate space for ministry, an inability to meet during the week, an inability to attract new congregants and lack of flexibility.  It began operating from buildings used by other ministries, but encountered similar problems and could no longer use those buildings.  When the Church began meeting at a local shopping mall, the mall informed the Church that it would no longer be permitted to meet there.  Since September 2015 the Church has met at Beverly City Elementary School.  However, the Church alleges that this space is also inadequate and it does not know for how long it will be allowed to continue to meet there.

According to the complaint, “Since its founding in 2012, the Church has never had a permanent place to worship. Throughout its nomadic existence, the Church has continued to serve the people of New Jersey by preaching, teaching, and helping the lost.”  Without an adequate meeting place, the Church states that it has had to forego several of its ministries.

In March 2015, the Church found property in Delanco Township that it believed could meet the needs of its congregation.  The property, which has been vacant for the past two years but was used by a church for 10 years prior to that, consists of a 10,000 square foot building and is located at 989 Coopertown Road in the Township’s General Industrial District (I-2).  The Church asserts that its income is only $2,400 per month, limiting the buildings it can afford to rent.  The Delanco Township property, according to the Church, is the only space that would both accommodate its needs and is affordable with a rent of $1,600 per month.

The Church entered into a 5-year lease to rent 2,300 square feet of the building’s 10,000 square feet.  It submitted a continued certificate occupancy application to put the Property to church use in March 2015, but was told by zoning administrators that it would need a use variance to be able to use the property.  The Church obliged and submitted an application for a use variance.

At the public hearing, neighbors spoke in opposition to the application, some complaining about the prior church, and related NIMBY objections.  The Township’s Joint Land Use Board denied the application on the ground that approval would compromise the intent of the master plan and zoning ordinance.  The Board also noted that churches are allowed in every zone except industrial, and that granting the application would have an adverse economic impact since it would be difficult to attract industrial and commercial uses to the area.

The Church disputes that the zoning ordinance permits it to locate in any other district, and claims that churches are allowed as-of-right in only one other zone, and as conditional uses in several other zones.

The Church alleges that the Township violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision both on its face and as-applied.  It also claims violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden and unreasonable limits and exclusions provisions and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  The Church requests that the court enter an injunction to allow the Church to use the Property; award damages for violation of its constitutional and statutory rights; and award attorneys’ fees.

Local coverage, including the complaint, is available here.