The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama has ruled that Ricky Martin may proceed with his religious land use and other claims against the Chilton County District Attorney Randall Houston. The Middle District of Alabama case Martin v. Houston involves Pastor Ricky Martin’s Triumph Church in Clanton, Alabama. Martin began a transitional housing program for men recently released from Alabama correctional facilities, many of whom were sex offenders. As part of his religious mission, he strives to help these individuals transition back into society. To do so, he set up 5 mobile homes on his land, all within 300 feet of each other. Sex offenders Martin hoped to help lived together in these mobile homes.
Alabama lawmakers adopted legislation (Alabama Code § 45-11-82) (the “Act”) that prohibited individuals whose names were listed on the Alabama sex offender list from living together in the same home, and further provides that offenders cannot live on the same property as another offender unless the homes are at least 300 feet apart. Violation of the Act constitutes a public nuisance with fines between $500 and $5,000 for each violation. The Act does not apply to offenders who are married or related. The Act applies only to Chilton County (which includes Clanton), but nowhere else in Alabama.
Martin argues that the Act was designed to affect only his property – to eliminate the transitional housing settlement. Fearing fines, Martin evicted all men living at his property. Martin sued alleging that the Act violates RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision and the Free Exercise Clause of the federal Constitution. He also argues that the Act is an unconstitutional bill of attainder, and raises a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim.
Defendant Houston moved to dismiss the claims, first arguing that the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and, second, that each action fails to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court found that the claims were justiciable and that it had subject matter jurisdiction over them.
The Court found that Martin had not sufficiently alleged one of the three “jurisdictional hooks” to present a colorable RLUIPA substantial burden claim. The Court, however, denied the motion to dismiss with respect to this claim, since Houston did not seek dismissal on this ground, and it will allow Martin to attempt to establish one of the hooks. For a court to entertain a substantial burden claim, the plaintiff must establish either that the substantial burden: (a) is imposed on a program that received federal financial assistance; (b) affects commerce among the several states; or (c) is imposed in the implementation of a land use regulation under which the government makes an individualized assessment. Here, the Court found that the Act was not an individualized assessment, since it did not involve a system of granting land use permits. Nor were there sufficient allegations to support either of the other two jurisdictional hooks.
The Court also found that Martin had sufficiently pleaded a Free Exercise Claim: “Martin’s pleading indicates that he holds sincere religious beliefs. As part of his Christian faith, he feels that he has a duty to serve others. He especially is compelled to serve those in need of help, and [sex offenders] fall into that category.” The Court also suggested that based on the facts before it, it appeared that Martin could prevail on such a claim. According to the Court, strict scrutiny should apply because it appears that the Act improperly targets Martin’s religious activity. Further, the Court observed that at this stage, there was no evidence that the Act served a compelling governmental interest advanced in a narrowly tailored manner:
Even if the Act serves a compelling governmental interest in preventing some type of harm posed by the clustering of sex offenders, it allows them to live in clusters so long as the sex offenders are related. What is more, it allows the same clustering to take place throughout the other sixty-six counties in the state. This indicates that the Act proscribes some conduct that is protected by the First Amendment, but fails to restrict other conduct that inflicts the same harm the Act was designed to prevent.
Martin’s unconstitutional bill of attainder and procedural due process claims were also allowed to proceed.