Earlier this month, an Islamic community center filed suit against the City of Troy, Michigan (“City”) after the City denied the group’s application for a variance needed to operate a mosque at the property it owns in the City, allegedly in violation of RLUIPA. The community center, known as Adam Community Center (“ACC”), is a non-profit corporation whose “stated mission and purpose is to establish a center for increasing knowledge through proper research, education and training in the community for the youth and adults; to establish peace through proper guidance; [and] to establish a homogenous atmosphere for all ethnic groups.” According to the Complaint, ACC has attempted to have several different properties approved as a community center and a place of worship over the past five years, each time meeting resistance from the City and its residents. In 2017, in an effort to avoid further resistance, ACC sought advice from the City as to which of several prospective properties could be used as a mosque and community center. In response, a city employee allegedly advised ACC to look to other cities, because he claimed that there were no places in Troy available for a mosque. There are, however, seventy-three approved places of worship in the City for various non-Muslim religions, several of which have been built and approved since 2013 when ACC began its search.

Recently, ACC purchased a property in the “GB” or “general business” commercial district to be used as a place of worship as well as community center (“Property”). According to the Complaint, the Property is flanked by other commercial properties on two sides, while abutting a major road on the third and a line of residential properties on the fourth; parking in back of the building extends to the property line that abuts the residential district. The Property has an existing structure that is partially used as a restaurant, but otherwise vacant.

Although places of worship are permitted as of right in the GB zone, the City’s zoning code requires greater setbacks for places of worship than commercial uses. Additionally, although the City’s zoning code permits commercial uses to locate parking spaces in setback areas adjacent to residential zones, places of worship may not; instead, places of worship are required to keep landscaping and open space in setback areas adjacent to residential zones. According to the Complaint, compliance with the limitation on parking within the setback areas would eliminate nearly all of the parking spaces that are required for a place of worship of ACC’s size. Therefore, in order to operate a mosque at the Property, ACC would need a variance.

Under the City’s zoning code, a property owner may apply for a variance where “literal enforcement” of the code would “involve practical difficulties[.]” The City’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) is authorized to grant variances if the use will be in harmony with the provisions of the code, “so that the public safety and welfare be secured and substantial justice done.”

At the public hearing on ACC’s variance application, ACC allegedly made it clear that it did not intend to make material changes to the outside of the building or parking lot, and “was just asking for the variance to be able to utilize the current parking spaces that are available and being used by previous owners of the building.” ACC asserts in its Complaint that the ZBA was motivated by discriminatory animus and instructed by the City attorney to ignore RLUIPA when evaluating the variance application.  The ZBA unanimously denied ACC’s application.

According to the Complaint, ACC’s lack of a permanent location to gather for religious exercise has impeded ACC’s ability to hire a full time religious leader, hold regular congregational prayers, and provide for the needs of its members and Muslims in the community in general, amounting to a substantial burden on ACC’s free exercise of religion in violation of RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. Moreover, ACC alleges that the City’s zoning code places fewer restrictions on commercial assemblies than it does on religious assemblies (e.g., less stringent setback requirements), without a compelling government interest, in violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms provision.

The Complaint in Adam Community City v. City of Troy (E.D. Mich. 2018), available here, also alleges violations of RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination, and exclusions and limitations provisions; the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Establishment clauses; the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause; the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause; and various sections of the Michigan Constitution.