A federal court in New York issued an important decision that should serve as a reminder about the reach of RLUIPA. The case involves a homeowner’s request to have an Amish roofer repair her damaged roof. In April 2018, Dorthy Frances Ripley’s home was damaged by high winds and she hired a local Amish roofer, Emmanuel Roffer, to replace her roof. Mr. Roffer told Ms. Ripley that he could not perform the work because he did not have insurance, which was required by the City of Olean, New York but prohibited by his religion. Ms. Ripley tried to purchase insurance for her roofer, but was informed by her insurance agent that she was not allowed to do so. Ms. Ripley sued the City and alleged that the City violated “the religious customs of Emmanuel Roffer, whose Amish beliefs … forbid him to buy insurance of any kind, or to obtain government-issued permits or licenses.” She also claimed that being denied “the benefit of having Amish laborers replace the roof on her home … is a violation of her land use rights,” and she sought unspecified damages.
The district court ruled that Ms. Ripley had failed to state a valid RLUIPA claim because “RLUIPA … does not protect buildings or structures per se, but rather protects ‘the use, building or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise.’” Replacing a roof is a not a use of property.
The district court also ruled that Ms. Ripley’s claim would fail even if having an Amish roofer replace her roof was considered religious use of property. Ms. Ripley argued that since the “Amish perform the work they do believing that it is for the greater glory of God she chose … to use her property to support those beliefs and saw the payment for the work as a tithe unto the Lord.” The district court concluded that RLUIPA applies only to land use regulations or landmarking laws, neither of which were implicated. The law at issue restricts only who can perform the work, not the development or use of property. The City’s requirement that roofers be insured is not a landmarking law, which “generally involve[s] the ‘regulat[ion] and restrict[ion of] certain areas as national historic landmarks, special historic sites, places and buildings for the purpose of conservation, protection, enhancement and perpetuation of these places of natural heritage.” Nor is it a zoning law, “which in New York encompasses the powers of a city to, inter alia, ‘regulate and limit the height, bulk and location of buildings,’ as well as ‘the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings, designed for specified uses.’”