An interesting decision regarding RLUIPA and COVID-19 emergency public health orders was recently issued by a federal court in Missouri. Recall that in the land use context, RLUIPA applies only to “land use regulations.” The statute defines land use regulations as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such law, that limits or
Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole's Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA's Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association's Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President's Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.
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.”…
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently found in favor of the Town of Pembroke, New Hampshire regarding the Town’s denial of an application for an electronic sign permit for religious messages. The Town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (Board) denied the permit because it believed the sign would “detract from the rural character of the Route 3 corridor” and noted the Town’s interest in maintaining its “quaint little New England village” aesthetic. Signs for Jesus and Hillside Baptist Church (collectively, the Church) sued the Town after the Board denied a permit to install an electronic sign on Hillside Baptist Church’s property which would transmit messages provided by Signs for Jesus. According to the Church, the denial of the permit and the Town’s local sign code violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, RLUIPA’s equal terms and substantial burden provisions, and state law. The First Circuit did not agree. It affirmed the District Court’s decision granting summary judgment to the Town. Our post regarding that decision is available here.
Continue Reading First Circuit Rejects Signs For Jesus’ RLUIPA and Constitutional Appeal
If you are a municipality defending against a RLUIPA lawsuit, it is generally not a good sign when a court’s memorandum of decision begins with a string of biblical quotes. Wakulla County Florida experienced this earlier this summer. When granting a religious group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to operate a transition home, Judge Mark Walker opened his decision by writing:
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?” Matthew 25:44. To which the Lord replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Id. 25:45. Scripture teaches that by serving those in need, particularly those shunned by society, one serves the Lord. See James 2:14-16 (“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”).
The court went on to find that Wakulla County’s actions in prohibiting City Walk – Urban Mission Inc. (Urban Mission) from operating a transition home for three or more people, including registered sex offenders, violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision.
Continue Reading Florida Court Finds RLUIPA Protects Transition Home for Registered Sex Offenders
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for injunctive relief filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church (Church) challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay-At-Home order and 4-stage reopening plan as it relates to religious worship gatherings. The Church, which has between 3 and 5 services each week with 200 to 300 congregants, sought to enjoin the restrictions which limit attendance at places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied the Church a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to enjoin the religious worship restrictions. A week later, the Supreme Court denied the Church’s application for injunction relief. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted to deny the injunction but did not write an opinion. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in denying the injunction and filed a short opinion. Justice Kavanaugh filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. Justice Alito dissented but did not write an opinion.
Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Upholds California’s COVID-19 Restrictions on Religious Worship
Last week, a federal court in North Carolina issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the assembly of religious worship provisions in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 138 (EO-138). The court found that EO-138 was likely to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Under EO-138, all worship services involving more than 10 people must be held “outdoors unless impossible.” Governor Cooper’s Director of Legislative Affairs issued a “Guidance for Religious Services and Mass Gathering Restrictions” that provides:
In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations – such as through, for example a series of indoor services of ten or fewer attendees or through on-line services – the ten-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply. For example, there may be situations where particular religious beliefs dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than ten persons must be in attendance.
Earlier this month, a federal court in Kentucky temporarily enjoined an order issued by the Mayor of Louisville on the grounds that the order likely violated First Amendment and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. On Holy Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, including for the Easter holiday, even if they remained in parked cars. On Fire Christian Center, Inc. (On Fire) wanted to hold its Easter worship service and planned to have its congregants attend by remaining in their parked vehicles 6-feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines. The only people who would be outside of cars would be the pastor and a videographer. On Fire sued the Mayor and City of Louisville and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the enforcement of the order. The court issued agreed with On Fire and issued the TRO. According to the court, “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.” (The court was quick to point out that it did “not mean to impugn the perfectly legal business of selling alcohol, nor the legal and widely enjoyed activity of drinking it.”)…
Continue Reading Federal Court: “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.”
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.
Continue Reading Baltimore County’s Zoning Code Found to Violate RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Provision
Ripeness is an important defense to RLUIPA claims. A plaintiff must receive a final decision from the local authority as to how the zoning law applies to its proposal. If not, plaintiff’s RLUIPA claim could be dismissed as unripe. Requiring a party to go through the full local procedures offers practical benefits to local governments, crystalizing the issues and presenting an opportunity to resolve matters prior to litigation. An initial denial by busy working-level zoning officials may create problems that can be solved by a zoning board of appeals’ more detailed and thoughtful review. The final decision requirement insures that review occurs before the courts become involved. Recently, however, plaintiffs have argued that finality is no longer necessary for a RLUIPA claim to be ripe.
Continue Reading Is Finality Still A Requirement For A RLUIPA Action To Be Ripe?
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.
Continue Reading City of Kirkwood, MO Hits Homerun in Religious Baseball Field Dispute in Eighth Circuit