A Connecticut federal court has issued an important decision in a case involving the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that could affect how municipalities and courts examine whether certain proposals are religious uses protected by the statute.  The 2016 decision in Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, Inc. v. Borough of Litchfield is the latest installment of a long-standing dispute regarding the Chabad’s attempts to renovate a former, historic residential house for religious use.  In 2014, we reported on the Second Circuit’s decision reversing the district court’s granting of summary judgment as to the Chabad’s RLUIPA substantial burden and nondiscrimination claims.  In its ruling, the Second Circuit found that even neutral laws of general applicability (in this case, Connecticut General Statute § 7-147 et seq.) could still impose a substantial burden on religious exercise, and clarified the analysis used to determine whether there has been a violation of RLUIPA’s nodiscrimination provision.

On remand from the Second Circuit, the district court has now ruled on motions for summary judgment and motions to dismiss filed by the defendants – the Borough of Litchfield, the Historic District Commission of the Borough of Litchfield (Commission), and individual Borough defendants.  Although the district court denied the motions for summary judgment, finding issues of material fact still in dispute, and largely denied the motions to dismiss, the case may affect how future courts analyze RLUIPA claims, particularly mixed (religious and secular) uses.

The Chabad purchased the former 2,656 square foot residential house located within the Litchfield Historic District and applied for a certificate of appropriateness to modify the house to accommodate its religious beliefs.  The proposal included a three-story 17,000 square foot addition for use as a sanctuary, rabbi’s study, two kosher kitchens, library, classrooms, a ritual bath, a residence for the Rabbi and his staff, visitor housing, a coffee bar, and an indoor swimming pool.  The Commission denied the application without prejudice and invited the Chabad to resubmit its application stating that it would view favorably an above-ground addition doubling the square footage of the original property and also permitting the Chabad to build as much underground as it wanted (as part of the property was underground).

While the Borough defendants concede that the sanctuary, rabbi’s study, classrooms, ritual bath, library, kosher kitchens, and coffee bar are each forms of religious exercise, they contend that the remaining uses (the pool, staff/visitor housing, and the Rabbi’s residence) are each secular uses and not protected by RLUIPA.  The court noted the complexities of the analysis:

When a religious entity seeks to construct a single building with multiple uses, the inquiry as to whether the construction of the building constitutes religious exercise becomes complicated.  This is especially so when some of the uses are arguably secular. On the one hand, as the Second Circuit noted, the construction of rooms used exclusively for secular purposes cannot constitute religious exercise… On the other hand, [w]here a building is to be used for the purpose of religious exercise, the building is not denied protection under RLUIPA merely because it includes certain facilities that are not at all times themselves devoted to, but are inextricably integrated with and reasonably necessary to facilitate, such religious exercise. (citations and quotes omitted).

The court noted that there are two possible approaches that can be used to determine whether a mixed-use proposal is religious.  First, is the “segmented” approach, which “would look at each distinct room / facility within the multi-use building and determine if it is used exclusively for secular purposes, or if it is used either exclusively for religious purposes or for both religious and secular purposes. The construction of rooms / facilities that fall into the first grouping would not be considered religious exercise, and the effect of the government’s action on the ability to build those rooms / facilities would not be analyzed under the substantial burden framework. The construction of those rooms / facilities that fall into the second grouping would still be analyzed under the substantial burden framework.”

Second is a “balancing” approach to examine “each room / facility and determine how it is used – exclusively secular, exclusively religious, or a hybrid use – and then, weighing all of the rooms / facilities, make a final determination as to whether construction of the entire building is, on balance, a form of religious exercise or not.”

The court utilized the “segmented” approach.  It observed that this approach was preferable especially because the Commission had suggested it would approve an addition double the square footage of the original house and any underground additions.  “To determine whether this condition itself substantially burdens the Chabad’s religious exercise, a factfinder needs to know whether an addition of that size, along with the original [house], would be sufficiently large to accommodate all of the Chabad’s religious exercise.”  The court found that there were genuine issues of material fact that prevented it from deciding whether each use was or was not religious in nature.

The motions for summary judgment as to the substantial burden and nondiscrimination claims were both denied because of factual issues still in dispute.  With respect to the substantial burden claim, the court examined several factors that may be instructive to courts and municipalities alike, including whether: (a) the Commission’s denial was arbitrary; (b) the denial was conditional; (c) the conditions imposed a substantial burden; (d) there were feasible alternatives; (e) the Chabad reasonably believed it would be allowed to make the modifications when it purchased the property; and (f) there was a close nexus between the Commission’s actions and the alleged burden.  Various immunity defenses were also rejected by the court.

Finally, the court considered whether the Chabad’s Rabbi, a named defendant, had a sufficient property interest to have standing to sue under RLUIPA.  The court concluded that he did as to the substantial burden claim, but did not as to the nondiscrimination claim.  It emphasized that the nondiscrimination provision prohibits the government from discriminating against “any assembly or institution,” which the Rabbis was not.