A federal court in Maryland has found that a rabbi was without standing to bring claims under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination and equal terms provisions, since those claims can be brought only by an “assembly” or “institution.”  While the court dismissed these claims, identical claims brought by a Jewish congregation – an assembly or institution under RLUIPA – continued.

Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. (“ARIEL”) purchased property at 8420 and 8430 Stevenson Road, Pikesville, Maryland (“Property”) to use as a house of worship and a residence for Rabbi Belinsky.  The Property has a 2,000 square foot barn and 2,381 square foot two-story house.  ARIEL planned to replace the barn with a synagogue and use the house as a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky.  The zoning district in which the Property is located (Density Residential) allows places of worship as-of-right, so long as they meet certain requirements, and is also in an overlay zone with additional requirements.

ARIEL filed a petition for permission to use the Property for religious worship, and an eight day hearing was conducted before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), serving as Zoning Commissioner.  Neighbors opposed ARIEL’s use of the Property and argued that the proposed use would not comply with the overlay zone requirements.  The ALJ agreed and denied the petition.  ARIEL appealed the ALJ’s denial to the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County, Maryland (“Board”).  After conducting ten separate hearings, the Board denied the appeal.  It found that the proposed use did not comply with zoning requirements and that the denial would not violate RLUIPA.

ARIEL and Rabbi Belinsky sued Baltimore County, Maryland and the Board in federal court, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equal terms provisions; the Fair Housing Act; the Free Exercise Clause; the Equal Protection Clause; the Due Process Clause; and state law.  Defendants moved to dismiss the claims on three grounds: (a) that the federal court should abstain from considering the claims in the lawsuit; (b) that the Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies; and (c) that Rabbi Belinksy lacks standing to assert claims under RLUIPA.

The court rejected the Defendants’ abstention argument.  The Defendants asserted that the federal court should not interfere with a “complex state regulatory scheme concerning important matters of state policy for which impartial and fair administrative determination subject to expeditious and adequate judicial review are afforded.”  Abstention, said the court, was inappropriate for RLUIPA, federal constitutional, and Fair Housing Act claims, as the Plaintiffs sought to “vindicate important constitutional rights” despite the connection to zoning law.

The court also rejected the Defendants’ argument that the Plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies (in the form of following the appeals procedure in the Maryland Code).  Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Patsy v. Bd. of Regents of State of Florida, the court concluded that exhaustion is not required for claims under RLUIPA, the Fair Housing Act, or 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Finally, the court considered the Defendants’ argument that Rabbi Belinsky lacked standing to sue under RLUIPA.  For the Rabbi to bring RLUIPA claims (substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equals terms), he must have “an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract option to acquire such an interest.”  The Rabbi had such an interest, since he had an oral lease with ARIEL to reside at the Property.  However, the Rabbi did not have standing to bring RLUIPA nondiscrimination and equal terms claims because – unlike substantial burden claims – they apply only to any “assembly” or “institution.”  The court therefore dismissed the Rabbi’s nondiscrimination and equal terms claims.

The decision in Congregation Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Docket No. GLR-17-910 (D. MD 2018) is available here.