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.”


Continue Reading St. Pete Beach, Florida Enjoined from Prohibiting Church’s Beach Parking Lot Evangelism

Across the nation, religious institutions are challenging COVID-19-related restrictions on religious worship.  There are too many cases to note.  We recently posted about the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) decision denying an application for injunctive relief filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay-At-Home order and 4-stage reopening plan which restricted religious worship gatherings.  We also posted about district court cases from Kentucky and North Carolina where executive orders in those states were found to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. On May 30, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in a one-line order, upheld a decision by the District Court for the District of Delaware that declined a church’s request for a temporary restraining order against enforcement of Delaware Governor John Carney’s COVID-19 emergency orders.
Continue Reading Judicial Restraint in the Time of COVID-19?

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.


Continue Reading Federal Court: “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

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.”

Wayside Chapel Evangelical Free Church is suing Castle Hills, Texas for denying its application for a special use permit for property located at 113 Ivywood Circle.  The Church claims that the extra space is needed to accommodate its religious exercise, particularly for Sunday School classroom programs.  Reportedly, the property that was the subject of the

A United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee recently ruled that Layman Lessons Church and Welcome Baptist Church, Inc. (“Layman Lessons”) can move forward with most, but not all, of its religious discrimination claims against Metropolitan Government of Nashville/Davidson County (“Nashville”).  The dispute arose in 2018, when Layman Lessons claims that Nashville used local building and zoning laws to prevent it from ministering to the poor and homeless on commercially zoned property located at 1455 Neelys Bend Road, Madison, Tennessee (“Property”).  Layman Lessons provides food, clothing, shelter, a mobile shower and laundry center, transportation, life skills training, and spiritual and recovery counseling to the poor and homeless.  It alleges that Nashville discriminated against it by refusing to allow it to use the Property to serve the poor and homeless in a variety of ways, including by delaying its religious use of the Property; preventing mobile food pantries in the paved parking area; issuing fabricated stop work orders, even though Layman Lessons was not violating any law; recommending demolition of Layman Lessons’ storage barn; refusing to correct an illegal storm water pipe that flooded the Property; and interfering with Layman Lessons’ existing contract with its landlord to conduct religious activities, operate mobile food pantries; and provide laundry services to the homeless.
Continue Reading Church Ministering to Homeless/Needy Can Proceed with Most of its Religious Discrimination Claims

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision dismissing a church’s religious discrimination claims.  In doing so, the Fourth Circuit found that the church had properly alleged claims under RLUIPA based in part on the community’s ethnic bias against the church’s connection to associated church’s in Kenya, as well as the fact that many of the church’s congregants were born in Africa.  (We previously posted about the case here).
Continue Reading 4th Circuit Rules Ethnic Bias Gives Rise to RLUIPA Claim

As New Year’s approaches, let’s look back at last year’s happenings and how they have shaped religious land use issues across the nation.  Here are our top 10 most read blog posts of 2018:

The holidays are upon us.  That means spending time with loved ones, good food, presents, and, of course, controversial holiday displays.  Under the First Amendment, government must treat all religions equally and cannot take any action that would unreasonably burden religious exercise unless it has a compelling reason to do so.  Sometimes, local governments receive requests for provocative holiday displays on public grounds.  Other times, they may receive complaints to take action to prevent over-the-top private holiday displays.  In each instance, local governments might feel as though their hands are tied under the First Amendment to do anything but allow the displays.  While nothing will ever quite live up to that one haunted house worker in Ohio who used zombies to create a nativity scene, baby-fanged Jesus and all (read more here), below are some of our favorite stories for 2018.
Continue Reading Tis The Season for Controversial Holiday Displays