Church for LeaseThe Scinto Foundation (Foundation) supports religious organizations “by having activities which are similar to [religious activities] and/or by giving them money, or donating services ….”  The Foundation sued the City of Orange, California, claiming violations of rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and state law, because the City “deprived the Foundation of and interfered with [the Foundation’s] use of its building, primarily by failing to keep required permits and plans for [the Foundation’s] building and creating the mistaken belief [the Foundation] was in violation of various regulations.”

In 2012, the City, through its Fire Department, conducted a routine inspection of the Foundation’s building and reported potential Fire Code violations.  One member of the Fire Department investigated and “found evidence the tenant [the Breath of Spirit Ministries] may have committed an unpermitted occupancy change to assembly use, there was an incomplete fire detection system and an individual was living in the attic space of the building.”  The Foundation’s tenant, the Breath of Spirit Ministries, a church, vacated the building after the dispute with the City’s Fire Department.

The Foundation claimed that the City’s actions violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions, and moved for summary judgment.  The United States District Court for the Central District of California declined entering summary judgment.  First, the court found that there existed genuine issues of material fact as to whether the case was ripe for the court’s review.  Ripeness asks whether the timing of the claims is appropriate for the court’s review or whether there is some other, local mechanism that the complainant should first pursue before seeking judicial relief.

Notwithstanding the ripeness issue, the court found that there was no substantial burden on the Foundation’s religious exercise, even if renting to a religious institution is religious exercise under RLUIPA.  Specifically, the court stated: “Plaintiff fails to clearly point to any evidence showing there was a substantial burden on its free exercise.  Although Plaintiff’s building at 1624 West Katella Avenue is the center of this lawsuit, Plaintiff has not cited anything in the record indicating it was precluded from carrying out its ‘religious mission’ or ‘engag[ing] in, conduct[ing], and promot[ing] religious … activities primarily in Orange County, California.”

Although the court did not decide whether leasing to a religious tenant is religious exercise, it observed in a footnote that another court, in California-Nevada Conference of the Methodist Church v. City & County of San Francisco, found that “commercial endeavors such as that here … the sale of property for the construction of market rate condominiums if undertaken by Conference in order to fund its religious mission, do not constitute ‘religious exercise’ protected by RLUIPA.”  We posted about this case here.

The court also found that there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Foundation’s RLUIPA equal terms claim is valid, namely whether the Foundation is a religious assembly or institution.  Further, the Foundation failed to show that the City treated it on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.

The Foundation also alleged that the City’s actions constituted inverse condemnation under the California Constitution; amounted to a nuisance under California law; and were intentionally taken to interfere with a contractual relationship under state law.  The court denied summary judgment on each of these claims.

The court’s decision in The Daniel and Francine Scinto Foundation v. City of Orange is available here.

Photo credit Stephen Fife, some rights reserved.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.