Do 1,400 cattle and 17.4 million gallons of cow waste in open-air lagoons, upwind and a half a mile from a religious youth summer camp, impose a substantial burden? As unpleasant as a concentrated animal feed operation (“CAFO”) may be, a neighboring religious organization cannot use RLUIPA as a shield to prevent its operation.

We originally posted about House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. d/b/a Harvest Christian Camp v. Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals, here. On January 16, the Court of Appeals of Indiana dismissed House of Prayer’s lawsuit that sought judicial review of a decision issued by the Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals (the “Board”) allowing a special exemption permit to Milco Dairy Farm, LLC (“Milco”) to operate a CAFO. One of five issues on appeal was whether the Board’s approval violated RLUIPA and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

The Court never considered whether the CAFO operations imposed a substantial burden on House of Prayer’s camp operations under RLUPIA, because it concluded that RLUIPA was not applicable. Under RLUIPA, no government may impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. However, RLUIPA defines a land use regulation as “a zoning… law or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use. . . of land. . . , if the claimant has. . . [a] property interest in regulated land. . . .”  42 U.S.C.A. § 2000cc-5(5).  Therefore, the Court concluded that “[b]y its plain terms, RLUIPA may be raised only by a claimant who has a ‘property interest in regulated land.’”  House of Prayer argued that RLUIPA was applicable because “regulated land” means any land affected by regulation, even if the regulation is directed at land where the claimant may not have a legal interest.

Interpreting RLUIPA in the broad manner advocated by House of Prayer, the Court reasoned, would lead to absurd results—Since the proposed CAFO could potentially impact the entire Country, every citizen of the County would potentially have a RLUIPA claim.

Next the Court examined House of Prayer’s RFRA claim. RFRA has a broader reach than RLUIPA and applies to any law of general applicability that may impose a substantial burden on religious exercise. The Court disagreed with the Board’s assertion that House of Prayer provided no evidence of a substantial burden.  It did, however, credit the Board’s finding that Milco submitted sufficient evidence of mitigation efforts intended to abate noxious odors and avoid waste run-off from Milco’s property. For these reasons, the Court found that the Board’s finding that House of Prayer would not be substantially burdened was supported by substantial evidence.

The Court’s decision in House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. d/b/a Harvest Christian Camp v. Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals, is available here.

Photo by Rose Craftsome rights reserved.