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.