The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has reversed a district court’s decision that Harbor Missionary Church’s (Church) religious exercise was not substantially burdened by the City of San Buenaventura’s denial of a conditional use permit.  In 2008, the Church began providing service to the poor and needy in accordance with its religious beliefs.  These services included religious teachings, prayer, clothing, food, showers, counseling, and other support.  Homeless individuals came to the church for care and assistance, and neighbors began complaining about incidents of threats, trespassing, public nudity, and substance abuse.  The Church took several steps in an effort to address these concerns – such as employing a security guard, enforcing a no-loitering policy, coordinating with social service agencies, requiring identification, strengthening neighborhood patrols, and maintaining a public complaint hotline.

In 2013, the City told the Church that if it wished to continue providing these services to the poor and needy, it would have to obtain conditional use approval.  The Church applied for the permit and City staff members issued a report recommending approval of the application, subject to certain conditions.  The City Planning Commission, however, denied the application without considering an approval subject to any conditions.

The Church sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden provision, along with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  The Church moved for a preliminary injunction, but the district court concluded that the Church was unlikely to succeed on the merits of its claim, and declined entering the injunction.  According to the district court, the Church could relocate to another neighborhood to serve the poor and needy.  It further found that even if there were a substantial burden, a flat out denial of the conditional use permit was the least restrictive means of furthering the City’s interest of protecting public health and safety.

The Ninth Circuit reversed: “The district court erred in its analysis by minimizing the burden imposed on the Church’s free exercise of religion. The district court also erred in failing to properly consider the conditions recommended by the City’s staff when it determined that a complete denial of the conditional use permit was the least restrictive means to achieve the City’s compelling interest in public safety.”

Denial of the conditional use permit prevented the Church from continuing with its religious practice of feeding, clothing, and caring for those less fortunate.  Forcing the Church to relocate this religious practice to another neighborhood would cost at least $1.4 million, an expense undisputed by the City.  The Ninth Circuit found that this significant cost substantially burdened the Church’s religious exercise.

While the district court did not err in finding that the City had a compelling governmental interest in protecting public health and safety – it erred in concluding that the City had exercised the least restrictive means of furthering its interest.  That is, the City failed to consider any of the conditions for approval previously recommended by City staff, or the wide variety of measures taken by the Church in response to neighbors’ concerns.  Evidence suggested that the Church may have been willing to comply with some of the recommended conditions of approval.  The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court as follows:

On remand, the district court should make factual findings, after such proceedings as may be necessary, about what conditions, if any, the Church would or would not comply with if the City had granted a conditional use permit. The court should also detail why the conditional use permit recommended by the City’s staff would or would not sufficiently protect the neighborhood from any negative effects shown to be the result of the Church’s ministry to the homeless.

The decision in Harbor Missionary Church v. City of San Buenaventura (9th Cir. 2016) is available here.