The King’s Tabernacle, a Rhode Island Church with a predominantly African American congregation of 20 members, has sued the Town of Johnston, Rhode Island over the Town’s denial of its special use permit for religious assembly use.  According to King’s Tabernacle, “[i]n early 2015, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Church set out to open up a new place of worship as part of a strategy for church expansion and to spread the good news that God so loves the world that He sent His only son, Jesus, to die for our sins, and that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will find forgiveness and have eternal life.”  In the summer of 2015, King’s Tabernacle contracted to purchase “a new place of worship” at 500 Greenville Avenue in Johnston in the Town’s B-2 Zoning Use District (Property).  Reportedly, a church building had been constructed on the Property in 1891 with religious assembly and worship taking place there for over 120 years, most recently by the Belknap Community Church from whom King’s Tabernacle purchased the Property.

Rather than allow King’s Tabernacle to continue to use the Property for religious assembly use, the Town required that it obtain a special use permit.  King’s Tabernacle asserts that the Town would allow several other non-religious assembly uses at the Property as of right, but requires that religious assembly uses obtain a special use permit to operate at the Property.  The other non-religious assembly uses include (a) concert halls; (b) theatres; (c) municipal buildings like a town hall; (d) indoor recreation centers; (e) adult daycare centers; and (f) schools.

Nevertheless, King’s Tabernacle complied with the Town’s instructions by filing a special use permit on June 3, 2015 with the Town’s Zoning Board of Review.  The Board denied the application on June 25, 2015.  King’s Tabernacle alleges that less than two days after the denial, the Town’s Zoning Official “was caught racially discriminating against the Church in connection with its use and repair of the Property and referring to the ‘f___ing black owner’ of the Church.”

King’s Tabernacle complains that “[s]ince the Town halted the Church’s use of the Property, people have left the church and the Church’s growth has been stunted.”  It further claims that “[m]any of the Church’s specific ministry opportunities are being lost forever every day because the Church is not able to operate as a Church at the Church Property.”

King’s Tabernacle alleges violations of RLUIPA’s equal terms, total exclusion and unreasonable limits, and substantial burden provisions, along with violations of the First Amendment.  It also alleges that the Property is a protected legal non-conforming use, meaning that it should not have been required to obtain a special use permit, but should have been allowed to continue the traditional religious use of the Property.  The Complaint, in The King’s Tabernacle v. Town of Johnston, Rhode Island, is available here.