The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts recently ruled that the RV Camp proposed by Hume Lake Christian Camps’ (Hume) was predominantly religious in nature and therefore qualified for protection under the Dover Amendment.  Similar to the federal Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, the Dover Amendment is a Massachusetts law that limits a municipality’s ability to restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes.  This means that a religious group may be able to override certain zoning regulations if the group’s proposed use serves a predominately religious purpose.

Hume, founded in 1956, is a nondenominational, conservative, evangelical Christian organization that unites different denominations sharing an evangelical Christian faith.  It hosts camps in California and Massachusetts to “evangelize the world.”   In Monterey, Massachusetts, Hume owns and operates a campground of over 400 acres, where it hosts summer and winter program camps. Activities at the camp include “religious instruction, twice-daily chapel sessions, performances by worship bands, and recreational activities such as canoeing, basketball, hiking, and ax throwing.” Additionally, Hume rents out its facilities for guest retreats. However, groups that wish to use the grounds must have beliefs that align with Hume’s and must also allow Hume to give a presentation about its ministry.  

Hume’s staff, including seasonal employees, are required to sign Hume’s statement of religious beliefs.  Counselors and food service assistants must also agree “with the theological positions, philosophy, and policies of [Hume].”  Although Hume’s campers do not have to attest to their religious faith, they must attend all camp sessions, including chapel sessions.

The dispute at issue arose out of Hume’s proposal to build an RV camp on its grounds. The RV camp would house a new family camp program, working volunteers, and seasonal summer staff, and would be within walking distance from Hume’s permanent facilities. The Planning Board of Monterey rejected Hume’s site plan application due to a zoning bylaw prohibiting mobile home parks in all districts. On appeal, the Land Court concluded that accommodations for family attendees served a predominately religious purpose and was subject to Dover Amendment protection but housing for staff and volunteers was not.

The SJC agreed with the Land Court that housing for family attendees at the RV camp would advance Hume’s religious mission, since the religious purposes exemption covers accessory uses that are not inherently religious, but whose purpose is to aid a system of faith and worship. Accordingly, even though staying in an RV camp is not a religious activity, allowing families to attend Hume’s religious programming together satisfies the religious purposes test.

Next, the SJC reversed the Land Court’s determination that the residences for staff and volunteers were not exempt under the Dover Amendment.  According to the SJC, housing volunteers and seasonal workers at the RV camp help to carry out Hume’s religious goals because volunteers and seasonal workers assist in operating Hume’s programs and maintaining Hume’s property.

Lastly, the SJC rejected the Planning Board’s argument that Hume’s primary purpose is recreation, not religious practice, due to offering activities like canoeing and ax throwing and permitting “nonbelievers” to attend the camp. In response, the court reiterated that “the religious purposes exemption is not limited to uses that are typical of or inherent to religious institutions.” Additionally, the court noted that Hume’s programs require attendance at two chapel sessions a day along with religious instruction. Instead, recreational activities are offered to boost camp attendance and engagement which promote Hume’s religious goals. Furthermore, allowing “nonbelievers” to attend the camp allows for further opportunity to evangelize.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the RV camp advances Hume’s religious mission and is an exempt use under the Dover Amendment.

The decision in Hume Lake Christian Camps, Inc. v. Plan Bd. of Monterey is available here.

*This post was co-authored by Joy Vincenzo, Summer Associate at Robinson+Cole. Joy is not admitted to practice law.