Christian Community Chapel Wesleyan Church, Inc. (the “Chapel”) was founded in 2000 and grew quickly to 125 members. Expecting continued growth, the Chapel purchased a 33,000 square foot building with seats for 600 worshipers. Unfortunately for the Chapel, its membership fluctuated greatly over the next ten years, at one point dropping to 35 members. Its facility was far too big, and by 2015 the Chapel sold its building, rented space, and began looking for a new, smaller facility with a space for a parsonage, worship hall, and youth activities. Notably, the Chapel requires its parsonage to be on the same site as its worship hall because the “parsonage can function as an extension of the worship space….”
In February of 2015, the Chapel entered a contract to purchase a 14.3-acre property (the “Property”) in Hillsborough, New Jersey (the “Township”). Existing structures on the Property include a residence, detached garages, meeting room, studio, and two-story barn. The Chapel intends to use the residence as a parsonage and covert the main barn to a 150-seat worship facility. The Property is located within the RS Zone, which allows churches as a conditional use. According to the Chapel, “libraries,” “community centers (noncommercial)” and “neighborhood convenience centers” are permitted principal uses within the RS zone.
When the Chapel sought Township zoning approval, it was told to apply for a use variance because the proposed church and parsonage were each viewed as primary uses on the same parcel. Additionally, the Chapel applied for a number of dimensional variances in order to meet the conditional use standards.
During the hearing process, Township officials expressed concern over fire safety aspects of the property, but the Chapel contends that it agreed to meet all of the Fire Marshall’s recommendations. It also appears that several Zoning Board of Adjustment (“ZBA”) members were concerned with the safety of conducting worship services on the second story of the barn as proposed by the Chapel. According to the Chapel, one Chairperson of the ZBA was quoted in the local newspaper “the applicant was very accommodating… [but it] still couldn’t change the fact that the second floor loft in this old, wooden barn could be a potential death trap.”
Although a majority of the Township’s ZBA approved the application, a supermajority (5-2) was required to approve the variance and the application was thus denied. The Chapel brought suit in federal court.
The Chapel claims that the Township’s position regarding the parsonage is unjustified because, under New Jersey law, a parsonage must be treated as an accessory use and the Township zoning code is silent on the specific issue of parsonages. Additionally, the Chapel claims that it is being treated less fairly than Mary, Mother of God Roman Catholic Church, which has a rectory that houses its priest on its property in the Township. This apparent dissimilarity in treatment is, according to the Chapel, a violation of RLUIPA’s Nondiscrimination provision.
In addition, the Chapel alleges violations of RLUIPA’s Substantial Burden, Exclusions and Limits, and Equal Terms provisions. It also claims violations of the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, and New Jersey law. The complaint in Christian Community Chapel v. Hillsborough is available here.