IMG_20150821_070935520_HDRLate last year, Summit Church of  Elkins, West Virginia, sued the Randolph County Development Authority (“RCDA”) in the Northern District of West Virginia for preventing the Church from purchasing a local movie theater for its religious use.  The theater was part of a former CSX rail-yard that was purchased in 1997 by RCDA, subdivided, and then sold to as individual parcels to buyers subject to covenants (the “Covenants”) with the express purpose of redeveloping the former rail-yard  “as a commercial mixed-used district that reflects the history and culture of the site.”  See our prior post for additional background on Summit’s complaint here.

Summit Church moved for summary judgment on all its claims, which were: (1) violation of Free Exercise, (2) violation of Equal Protection, (3) violation of the West Virginia Constitution, (4) a facial challenge under RLUIPA, and (5) violation of Substantive Due Process.

The court limited its analysis to Summit’s RLUIPA Equal Terms challenge.  RLUIPA’s Equal Terms provision states that “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or denomination.”  Noting the lack of a binding Fourth Circuit case law, the court stated various “tests” developed in other circuits to determine what constitutes a valid secular comparator.  The court identified three different approaches to the comparator determination:

(1) the “regulatory purpose” test;

(2) the “accepted zoning criteria” test; and

(3) the “functional intents and purposes” test.

First, the court reviewed the Third Circuit case Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism v. City of Long Branch, 510 F.3d 253 (3d Cir. 2007), which “explained that the Equal Terms provision requires a secular comparator that is similarly situated as to the regulatory purpose of the regulation in question….” (emphasis in original).  Without explanation or discussion of the other two tests, the court adopted the Third Circuit approach.

The court then reviewed the “regulatory purpose” of the of the Covenants (“redevelop the former railyard ‘as a commercial mixed-use district that reflects the history and culture of the site’”) and explained its view that the defendants failed to show how a church would harm the Covenants’ objectives any more than the other permitted uses.  It reasoned:

RCDA permits several types of non-religious assemblies without explanation of how their presence in the Railyard further the Covenants’ objectives. For instance, convention centers that could be used for unspecified meetings are permitted. Libraries and post offices are permitted. Government offices are permitted. This Court fails to see how these are either “commercial” uses or how they “reflect[] the history and culture of the site.” The defendants wholly fail to attempt to define what they believe the “history and culture of the site” even is.

Based on this reasoning, the court granted Summit’s motion for summary judgment.  The court’s decision is available here.  The complaint in Summit Church v. Randolph County Development Authority (N.D. WV 2015) is available here.

Original photo by Karla Chaffee