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.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.