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.

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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.