A federal court in Michigan has ruled that Genoa Charter Township did not violate federal law in denying a church’s application for a special use permit to operate a religious school. Livingston Christian Schools (LSC) sought to use property owned by another church, Brighton Church of the Nazarene (Nazarene Church), for its religious school. LSC had been operating its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Christian school in Pinckney, Michigan, but insisted that it had to relocate to meet its growing enrollment, academic objectives, and mission to serve Livingston County. The Nazarene Church property sits on 16.5 acres and has a Christian education center, a sanctuary, offices, a recreational facility and a residential parsonage. Our prior post regarding LSC’s complaint is available here.
LSC entered into a five-year lease with the Nazarene Church and prepaid $70,000 in rent, with the intent to relocate to the property for the 2015-2016 school year. At the same time, LSC agreed to lease the Pinckney property, which it formerly used to run its religious to school, to a charter school for $5,000 per month.
After the Township heard of LSC’s plan to relocate, it advised the Nazarene Church that a special use permit would be needed for LSC’s use. In March 2015, the Nazarene Church applied for an amendment to the existing special use permit to allow LSC’s use of the property as a religious school. Neighbors objected that the new use would adversely impact traffic and also complained that the Nazarene Church had failed to comply with conditions in its existing special use permit. The Township’s Planning Commission recommended that the Township Board of Trustees approve the application for the amendment, but the Board denied the application on July 20, 2015 by a 4-3 vote for several reasons, including: (a) negative impacts on the adjacent neighborhood; (b) inconsistencies with the Master Plan; (c) traffic concerns; and (d) the Nazarene Church’s history of noncompliance with the conditions of its special use permit.
LSC alleged that the Township’s actions violated the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden provision, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive due process protection.
In addressing LSC’s RLUIPA claim, the court noted the substantial burden test in the Sixth Circuit: the government must place substantial pressure on the religious group to violate its religious beliefs or effectively bar the religious group from using its property in the exercise of its religion. The court rejected LSC’s substantial burden claim, because LSC has not “proffered evidence showing that it cannot carry out its church mission and ministries due to the Township’s denial.” Specifically, LSC could have used the Pinckney location to continue with its desired use and in fact found another location at Whitmore Lake to operate for the 2015-2016 school year. In other words, LSC had available to it ready alternatives to ensure its continued religious exercise.
The court rejected LSC’s First Amendment Free Exercise claim for two reasons. Under Sixth Circuit precedent, a religious group must show that the desired religious use at a particular location is a “fundamental tenet” of the religious group’s faith. Here, there was no evidence that operating the religious school from the Nazarene Church property was a fundamental tenet of LSC’s religion. The claim also failed because the court found that the Township had simply applied a neutral law of general applicability and there was no evidence of religious discrimination.
The Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim failed because LSC had no protected property interest. That is, LSC could not prove that the ordinance at issue required the Township to grant its application for a special use permit, since the Township had discretion to deny the application.
The decision in Livingston Christian Schools v. Genoa Charter Township (E.D. MI 2016) is available here.