The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the lower court’s decision dismissing an Establishment Clause challenge over the approval of a religious center.  The lawsuit was brought by two residents who live near a mixed-use, two-story religious center proposed by Chabad of East Boca, Inc. (“Chabad”).  In 2007, Chabad sought to acquire land located in the City of Boca Raton’s single-family zone, where “places of worship” are prohibited.  The same year, the City introduced a proposed ordinance that would have allowed places of worship on land originally zoned for residential use.  The ordinance would permit Chabad to develop the land in the single-family zone as a place of worship.  Residents opposed the ordinance and the City stopped considering the ordinance in 2008.  Chabad then abandoned its plans to develop the property in the City’s single-family zone.

According to the plaintiffs, there were a number of secret meetings between the City and Chabad about development of another religious site on a different property located at 770 Palmetto Park Road in a separate zoning district in the Seaside Village neighborhood.  In 2008, the City enacted a new ordinance that added “places of worship” to the definition of “places of public assembly,” and applied to the Seaside Village site.  Places of public assembly now included:

Any area, building or structure where people assemble for a common purpose, such as social, cultural, recreational and/or religious purposes, whether owned and/or maintained by a for-profit or not-for-profit entity, and includes, but is not limited to, public assembly buildings such as auditoriums, theaters, halls, private clubs and fraternal lodges, assembly halls, exhibition halls, convention centers, and places of worship, or other areas, buildings or structures that are used for religious purposes or assembly of persons.

Seven years later, in 2015, Chabad completed its building plans for the Seaside Village property.  It proposed a two-story religious center with a meeting area, religious museum area, parking structure, social hall, children’s playroom, kitchen and bookstore.  The City approved the Chabad’s proposal and issued it two variances to develop the site.

The plaintiffs sued in federal court, alleging that the City violated the Establishment Clause by giving preferential treatment to Chabad in enacting the new ordinance.  The plaintiffs also alleged violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the Florida Constitution.  The District Court twice dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint because it found that the plaintiffs lacked standing.  The District Court reasoned that the harm the plaintiffs alleged they would suffer from the construction of the religious center (increased traffic, difficulty for emergency vehicle access, and change in the character of the area) were common to the whole community and not particularized to the plaintiffs.

During the course of the plaintiffs’ federal lawsuit, another lawsuit arose in state court between “[u]nrelated parties, for wholly different reasons.”  The state court ruled that the City had improperly approved Chabad’s religious center because the proposal included a “museum,” a term that was not included within the definition of “places of public assembly.”  The entire religious center – not just the museum aspect of it – was barred by the state court.

The only claim before the Eleventh Circuit was the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claim.  In light of the state court’s invalidation of the City’s approval, the Eleventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause challenge had been rendered moot: “Whether the Chabad will seek some other project, in some other form, at some other time, at this or some other location, remains to be seen.  We have indisputable evidence that this project is over.  And the complaint has offered not the slightest suggestion that a new Chabad project is in the works or being considered now by the City’s employees.  As we see it, this is a textbook case for mootness.”  In other words, there was no further relief that the federal court could provide the plaintiffs, given the state court’s decision invalidating the City’s approval of the religious center.

The decision in Gagliardi v. TJCV Land Trust, Docket No. 9:16-cv-80195 (11th Cir. 2018) is available here.