RLUIPA’s equal terms provision requires municipalities to treat religious uses no worse than analogous secular assembly uses.  Generally, if a municipality wants to either prohibit religious uses from a certain zone or subject them to stricter zoning review, it must have a strong justification to do so.  Justifications may include promoting important public health and safety issues.  However, municipalities may find themselves on the wrong side of a RLUIPA lawsuit if they treat religious uses worse than secular uses in the same zone if both have the same impact on the public health and safety justifications.  A federal court in Maryland recently ruled that Baltimore County’s zoning code violates RLUIPA because it allows public schools as of right while requiring religious use to obtain special exception approval in a conservation zoning district.  The main purpose of the district was to protect public water supply.  Because public schools and religious uses had the same effect on water supply, the Court found an equal terms violation based on the face of the zoning code.

Hunt Valley Baptist Church has operated at 1800 Worthington Heights Parkway in Baltimore County since 2004.  Over the years, the Church found the existing space too small to accommodate its congregation.  The Church’s pastor stated that 500 visitors sometimes show up for 350 seats and only 84 parking spaces.  The Church also hoped to construct a fellowship hall and gymnasium to support larger ministry activities such as weddings and funerals.  It hoped to develop 821 Shawan Road in Cockeysville, Maryland with a sanctuary building containing a nursery area, classrooms for religious educations, offices for staff members, general seating for 1,000 people, a fellowship hall and a gymnasium.

In November of 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing to consider the Church’s petition for special exception and ultimately granted the special exception.  A non-profit membership organization called Valleys Planning Council, Inc. appealed the ALJ’s decision to the County’s Board.  The Board reversed the ALJ’s decision for two reasons: because the gymnasium with a basketball court is “not the type of use that the County approved for the [conservation] zone by special exception” and the proposed parking lot would not comply with the zoning code’s impermeable surface requirement.

After upholding the constitutionality of RLUIPA, the Court ruled that the zoning code violated the equal terms provision because it allowed public schools as of right while requiring religious uses in the same zone to obtain a special exception permit.  The Court noted the different tests applied by different Circuit Courts of Appeal but declined to endorse any particular test.  The Court determined that the Church would prevail under any of the tests – the Eleventh Circuit’s liberal test under which land use regulations that includes any difference in treatment between religious and secular uses violates RLUIPA; as well as the more demanding test utilized by the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits under which a plaintiff must establish that a comparator is “similarly situated” to it.  The Court stated: “While public schools are permitted by right in the [conservation] zone, churches, such as Hunt Valley, must apply for and obtain a special exception.”  The Court added that “the County has never contended that churches have a more deleterious effect on water supplies, when compared with public schools.”  In fact, the Court noted that the County’s own expert witness “agreed that a public school will also have an environmental impact on the watershed.”

The Court’s decision in Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, No. 17-0804 (D. Maryland February 10, 2020) is available here.