The Ninth Circuit, in Mesquite Grove Chapel v. Debonis, recently issued an important decision ruling that plaintiff Chapel did not suffer a substantial burden on its religious exercise under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) following the Pima County Chief Zoning Inspector’s determination that the proposed use did not meet the zoning code’s definition of “church” use. The zoning code defined “church” as “[a] building or group of buildings used primarily as a place of communication or worship.” But the zoning inspector, affirmed by the Board of Adjustment, concluded that in this case the Chapel’s proposed use of its Tucson, Arizona property to conduct an average of 70 weddings a year charging about $5,000 in rental fees per wedding did not meet the definition. As stated in the district court’s decision, in articles about the Chapel in Millionaire Blueprints magazine and other publications the owner of the property alluded to the property as another location for his successful wedding business.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the zoning inspector, finding that (a) the inspector was entitled to absolute immunity, and (b) there was insufficient evidence to establish a substantial burden on plaintiff’s religious exercise. Plaintiff Chapel filed a motion for a new trial and the district court reversed its determination that the zoning inspector was entitled to absolute immunity, but affirmed its substantial burden decision.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The Ninth Circuit first found that the district court had correctly held that the zoning inspector was not entitled to absolute immunity. The purpose of absolute immunity is “to ensure that decisionmakers are not influenced by the threat of litigation.” “Absolute immunity exists if the government official can show that his or her role ‘is functional[ly] comparable’ to that of a judge.” However, the zoning inspector did not serve a role functionally comparable to that of a judge because proceedings before the inspector “are not adversarial and they lack procedural protections.” For this reason, absolute immunity did not apply.
The Ninth Circuit also concluded that plaintiff Chapel could not establish a substantial burden on its religious exercise. To establish a substantial burden in the Ninth Circuit, a religious group must show that some government action can be deemed “oppressive to a significantly great extent.” According to the Ninth Circuit, “[t]he primary burdens presented here – relocating or submitting a modified application – were not substantial, especially because Mesquite presented no evidence that other sites are unsuitable. Additionally, the Inspector’s decision was not arbitrary or made in bad faith. Mesquite has failed to show a substantial burden on its religious exercise within the meaning of RLUIPA.”