A federal court in Minnesota has issued a preliminary injunction in favor of a local church ministering to the homeless, ruling that the church was likely to prevail on its RLUIPA substantial burden and First Amendment free speech claims.  The injunction will prevent St. Paul, Minnesota from enforcing 2 of the 14 conditions it imposed on the church’s use of its property to aid the needy.  The church, First Lutheran Church (“First Lutheran”), operates in a residential area of St. Paul and, for over the past decade, has supported the poor and homeless in accordance with its religious beliefs.  Among the services provided by First Lutheran are Sunday breakfasts to more than 300 people, as well as a “wellness center” one night a week offering free medical services, mental health counseling, clothing, blankets and houseware, and a hot meal.  In 2017, First Lutheran partnered with another organization assisting St. Paul’s homeless as a day shelter and community center, Listening House of St. Paul (“Listening House”), and allowed Listening House to relocate to the church property.  The partnership allowed First Lutheran to expand its services beyond the local neighborhood to St. Paul generally.

The City informed Listening House that First Lutheran needed to obtain a Determination of Similar Use before it could relocate.  A city inspector approved First Lutheran’s application in 2017, noting that Listening House’s use would be “similar in character” to “the uses provided by First Lutheran.”  After Listening House began operating, a group of neighbors complained to the City that Listening House’s operation caused increases in foot traffic, people sleeping outside, and petty offenses such as littering, public intoxication and urination.  Although the City’s zoning code requires that any appeal of a decision of a city inspector be filed within 10 days, the City accepted the neighbors’ appeal three months after the decision on First Lutheran’s Determination of Similar Use application.  The Planning Commission denied the neighbors’ appeal, but imposed 14 conditions on First Lutheran’s use of the property, which it believed was a “middle-of-the-road” approach.  Among the conditions were limiting hours of operation to between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.; requiring First Lutheran to post a sign to restrict after-hours use “to aid in the enforcement of trespassing violations by Listening House guests or other persons when Listening House is closed;” and limiting the number of guests to 20 per day.  Both Listening House and the neighbors appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the City Council, but the appeals were denied and the conditions remained.

First Lutheran sued St. Paul and moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the conditions.  The court rejected the City’s argument that First Lutheran lacked standing to sue, since First Lutheran alleged sufficient injury by asserting that the City had illegally restricted the use of its property for religious exercise.  It also concluded that the action was ripe for judicial review because the City Council’s decision was a “final, definitive position” regarding First Lutheran’s use of its property, and there was no need for First Lutheran to pursue additional administrative relief.

The court ruled that 2 conditions – the sign-posting requirement and the 20-guest limit –  violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision because they were contrary to First Lutheran’s religious beliefs of providing a welcoming community to all individuals, regardless of economic, physical, mental or social status.  By limiting use of First Lutheran’s property to certain hours of the day, the City prevented First Lutheran from welcoming individuals for 2/3 of the day, and effectively said, “You are welcome here only during business hours.”  Likewise, the 20-guest limit severely restricted the number of guests to be served, given that Listening House serves about 50-60 guests per day, and First Lutheran provides Sunday breakfast to more than 300 people and its wellness center to 80-150 people one night a week.  According to the court, these conditions were more than a mere inconvenience on First Lutheran’s religious exercise, unlike the other 12 conditions.

The City attempted to justify the sign-posting requirement on the ground that it helped to further its government interest to reduce trespassing.  But the court was not persuaded, as First Lutheran consented to people being on church property after hours, meaning no trespassing would occur.  The court also rejected the City’s argument that the 20-guest limit helped maintain the residential character of the neighborhood by reducing crowding and petty offenses.  As a consequence of the 20-guest limit, the court said that First Lutheran would have to turn people away.  In the court’s view, this would result in more of the needy occupying First Lutheran’s outdoor property and the neighborhood generally.  As for petty offenses, the court concluded that they cannot be attributed to any organization, but are the “understandable effects of homelessness and poverty.”

The court also found that First Lutheran was likely to prevail on its First Amendment free speech claim.  The sign-posting requirement was subject to strict scrutiny for two reasons – first, because it constituted “compelled speech” in that First Lutheran was obligated to post a sign at odds with its religious beliefs; and, second, because it is content-based on its face under Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015), since it targets specific subject matter (consent to be on church property after hours).  The court also found that the sign-posting requirement was content-based under the purpose-based inquiry, pursuant to Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989), as the reason for the requirement is entirely connected to the City’s wish that First Lutheran restrict access to its property between 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.  The sign-posting requirement failed strict scrutiny for the same reasons under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision.

While First Lutheran and the City briefed the preliminary injunction issue, the City moved to dismiss the case for lack of standing, lack of ripeness, and for failing to sufficiently plead several of its claims.  For the same reasons as before, the court found that First Lutheran had standing to bring the action, which was ripe for review.  The court also found that all of First Lutheran’s claims, except for its substantive due process claim, had been sufficiently pleaded.  The court dismissed the substantive due process claim because First Lutheran did not allege facts sufficient to show that the City Council’s resolution was truly irrational or shocks the conscience.  “The conditions bear a sufficiently minimal relationship to the City’s interests to avoid the strong medicine of substantive due process.”  First Lutheran’s claims under RLUIPA (substantial burden and equal terms), the First Amendment (free speech and free exercise),  the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection), and state law were properly pleaded.

The court’s decisions in First Lutheran v. City of St. Paul, No. 18-954 (Dist. Minn. 2018), regarding the preliminary injunction and motion to dismiss are available here and 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.