Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an important decision regarding RLUIPA’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions.  The court ruled in favor of the City of Kirkwood, Missouri in a years-long battle against a religious high school challenging the City’s lighting regulations for its baseball field.  St. John Vianney High School, Inc. (“Vianney”) is an all-male Marianist high school that has operated in the City since 1960, wanted to expand its baseball games from daytime to nighttime.  It claimed its religion required it to evangelize and draw people to its 37-acre campus to share its faith.  Although Vianney installed the lights and obtained site plan approval, it took issue with conditions of approval imposed by the City which it claimed deprived it of all meaningful use of its baseball field at night.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the City.

The Eighth Circuit found that Vianney’s inability to use the baseball fields at night did not substantially burden the school’s religious exercise.  The court agreed “with other circuits that have concluded requiring a religious institution to use feasible alternative locations for religious exercise does not constitute a substantial burden.”  According to the Eight Circuit, Vianney failed to establish that its religious exercise would be substantially burdened by being limited to using its baseball field only during daylight hours, as it has done for decades:

Vianney is not being forced to violate its religious beliefs.  Rather, Kirkwood’s regulations require only that Vianney engage in these forms of exercise – community outreach, athletic activities, student prayer, etc. – either during the day or at alternative locations.  Because Vianney has not demonstrated that a requirement that it avail itself of these alternatives would substantially burden its religious exercise, its substantial burden claim fails.

Vianney’s RLUIPA equal terms claim fared no better.  Vianney argued that the City treated a public high school more favorably because it exempted that school’s football stadium lights from the regulations, but refused to exempt Vianney’s baseball field lights.  The court was not persuaded, since the public high school’s football stadium lights were installed prior to the enactment of the City’s lighting regulations in 2012 and were therefore exempt.  Unlike the public high school, Vianney sought to improve lights after the regulations came into effect.  Vianney and the public high school were not treated unequally because they were subject to different zoning schemes (before and after the enactment of the lighting regulations).  The court left for another day the issue of whether a secular comparator under the equal terms provision must be “similarly situation” to the religious institution.

Vianney also claimed that the limits on the use of the lights constituted a regulatory taking.  The Eight Circuit did not agree, concluding that the City’s regulations “do not deprive Vianney of all use of its baseball field but simply limit the light and sound trespass it can impose on neighboring homes.”

The Eighth Circuit’s decision in Marianist Province of the United States v. City of Kirkwood (8th Cir. 2019) is available here.