A federal court in Florida recently ruled that Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, Inc. (Church) was likely to prevail on its RLUIPA substantial burden claim challenging the City of St. Pete Beach’s enforcement of parking regulations.  Since 1957, the Church has allowed the general public to use its parking lot free of charge to access the beach.  According to the Church, providing free beach parking is part of its religious exercise in that free parking helps to attract people to the Church and affords the Church a “unique opportunity to serve the community and reach out to people who may not otherwise come to the Church.”  Over the years, the Church’s youth group decided to evangelize, pray for, and seek donations for their mission trips from people who parked in the Church’s lot.  Some of the Church’s neighbors were unhappy and complained to the City about the Church’s parking practices.  In 2016, the City took the position that its land use ordinances prohibited the Church from allowing anyone who is not a “customer” or “patron” of the Church from parking in the Church’s lot.

On January 26, 2021, the court granted the Church’s motion for a preliminary injunction and enjoined the City from enforcing its land use ordinance “to prevent or attempt to prevent the Church from continuing to allow the general public to use its parking lot, soliciting charitable donations on the lot, and evangelizing those who park in its lot.”

According to the court, “there is no question the Church has established a substantial burden” under RLUIPA.  “Under the City’s current interpretation of its parking ordinances, the Church is not permitted to allow people to use its own parking lot – for free or for a fee – unless people are parking there for a ‘legitimate church purpose.’  What might constitute a ‘legitimate church purpose’ is up to the City, not the Church.” 

The main point of contention between the Church and the City was whether the Church’s religious beliefs were “sincerely” held for the RLUIPA statute to apply or whether the beliefs were manufactured to circumvent the requirements of the City’s land use ordinances.  Relying on Justice Gorsuch’s decision in Yellowbear v. Lampert, 741 F.3d 48 (10th Cir. 2014), the court stated that “the ultimate question presented here is whether the Church is, in essence, seeking to perpetrate a fraud on the Court – whether it actually holds the beliefs it claims to hold regarding its use of its parking lot.”

According to the City, the Church’s religious beliefs relating to the use of the parking lot were not sincere because the Church did not always offer free parking.  The court dismissed this argument and noted that a religious group is free to change its mind over the years.  The court stated that the fact that the Church did not offer free parking in the past “does not mean that the Church’s presently stated religious beliefs are not sincere.”  Rather, the court credited the testimony of the Church’s Associate Minister, Jeanne Haemmelmann, who testified that “[t]he Church desires to attract people to the Church so that they can learn about, join in, and support the Church’s ministries.  The Church’s free parking is one of the most effective ways the Church can use the property God has given it to serve the community and attract new people to the Church.”

The decision in Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, Inc. v. City of St. Pete Beach, Florida (M.D. FL 2021) is available here.  The court’s order entering the preliminary injunction is available here.