Registration Open: 32d Annual Land Use Institute

Registration is now open here for the 32d Annual Land Use Institute to be held April 19-20, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.  This is the program, previously produced by ALI-ABA for many years, which is now produced by the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law.  The web site includes the faculty list and agenda and registration links.

Planning Co-chairs Frank Schnidman and Dean Patricia Salkin have assembled faculty from across the country, including RLUIPA-Defense’s own Dwight Merriam.  The conference will cover just about any and every area of land use law of interest, including: Affordable Housing; Agricultural Land; Comprehensive Planning; Development Agreements; Eminent Domain; Environmental Justice; Exactions; First Amendment; Historic Preservation; Impact Fees; Moratoria; Non-Conforming Uses; Takings; Variances; Vested Rights and Wetlands.

Church’s RLUIPA Claims Unripe and Moot, Says Federal Court

A federal district court in Illinois has dismissed religious discrimination and related claims alleged by the Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ (“Church”) against the City of Markham, Illinois (“City”), in connection with the City’s denial of the Church’s application for a conditional use permit.  We previously posted about this case, Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham, here and here.

The Church has been meeting at a residence previously owned by its pastor since 2003 (the “Property”).  In 2013, the Church applied to the City for zoning approval to operate the Property as a church in a residential zone.  During its review of the Church’s application, town officials questioned the sufficiency of parking at the site and ultimately denied the application after finding parking plans were inadequate.  After the City denied the Church’s application, the Church brought this suit.

In 2015, the Church’s nondiscrimination claims were dismissed for failing to allege facts to support the claim. However, the Court declined to dismiss claims brought by the Church under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, finding that these claims were adequately pled and the City’s reasons for denying the Church’s permit were not clear at the initial stage of the case. See Memorandum Opinion and Order, dated August 19, 2015.

In 2016, after reviewing the parties’ summary judgment motions and supplemental briefs, the Court struck without prejudice the dueling summary judgment motions, and ordered the Church to submit an application for a variance regarding the amount of parking required.  The Order did not opine as to whether the Church needed, or the City should approve, a parking variance, but nonetheless stayed the case until a decision on such application, allowing the parties to renew their summary judgment motions at a later date.  Accordingly, the Church submitted a variance application to the City, which was granted, in part, in March 2017.

Having concluded the variance application process, the parties renewed their motions for summary judgment, resulting in the instant decision.  See Church of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham (N.D. Ill., Feb. 13, 2018).

After a lengthy discussion of the parties’ “inability to hone in on the relevant issues,” the Court determined that the Church’s substantial burden claim was not ripe at the time it was filed.  The Court found that the Church improperly chose to seek recourse through the court, rather than through the City’s administrative process, when there remained available to the Church administrative remedies that could grant the Church the relief it sought without the need for judicial intervention.  As for the Church’s “purported financial setbacks” or its members’ alleged “emotional harm” resulting from the Court’s delayed consideration of the merits of this case, the Court noted: “[T]hese injuries are of [the Church’s] own making given its failure to seek the variance earlier.”

Additionally, the Court explained that, because the Church has now received a variance, there is no present case or controversy, such that the Church’s substantial burden claim is moot.

Original photography by Anthony Austonsome rights reserved.

Third Time’s Not the Charm for Trump’s Travel Ban

The Fourth Circuit ruled earlier this month that the Trump Administration’s third attempt at an immigration and travel ban, imposed on eight predominately Muslim countries, was likely to violate the Establishment Clause. On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued Proclamation No. 9645, Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats (the “Proclamation”).  The Proclamation was the third iteration of the “travel ban” promised by Trump while he was a presidential candidate.  The most recent decision by the Fourth Circuit is consistent with its earlier decision that the second iteration of the travel ban likely violates the Establishment Clause (prior post here).

The Proclamation was based on a report compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (the “Department”).  The Department reviewed information sharing and other factors on a country-by-country basis and assessed whether each country supported the United States’ ability to confirm the identity of individuals seeking entry into the United States. This report provided rationale for the Proclamation, but was not made available for judicial review. Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen were included in the Proclamation’s travel ban after the Department found their support to the United States was inadequate. Somalia did not meet the baseline criteria of inadequacy, but was still added to the ban list because of the “government’s inability to effectively and consistently cooperate, combined with the terrorist threat that emanates from its territory….”  Iraq’s support to the United States was found inadequate, but Iraq was not included on the Proclamation’s list because  of “the close cooperative relationship between the United States and the democratically elected government of Iraq….”

The Court ultimately found that the plaintiffs challenging the Proclamation had a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim. Howard Friedman’s Religion Clause Blog, quotes the majority opinion, which rejected the government’s basis for the Proclamation:

[H]ere the Government’s proffered rationale for the Proclamation lies at odds with the statements of the President himself. Plaintiffs here do not just plausibly allege with particularity that the Proclamation’s purpose is driven by anti-Muslim bias, they offer undisputed evidence of such bias: the words of the President. This evidence includes President Trump’s disparaging comments and tweets regarding Muslims; his repeated proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States; his subsequent explanation that he would effectuate this “Muslim” ban by targeting “territories” instead of Muslims directly; the issuance of EO-1 and EO-2 [travel ban 1 and 2], addressed only to majority-Muslim nations; and finally the issuance of the Proclamation, which not only closely tracks EO-1 and EO-2, but which President Trump and his advisors described as having the same goal as EO-1 and EO-2…..

The Court therefore concluded that the Proclamation lacked a secular purpose and that “[t]o the objective observer, the Proclamation continues to exhibit a primarily religious anti-Muslim objective.”  The Fourth Circuit’s decision in International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, (4th Cir. en banc, Feb. 15, 2018), is available here.

Cockfighting Not Sincerely Held Religious Belief, Rules Federal Court

In United States of America v. Cruz (F.D.N.Y. 2018), Hector Cruz pled guilty to the charge of knowingly attending a cockfighting event (a fight between two roosters) for sport and entertainment in the Bronx, New York, in violation of 7 U.S.C. § 2156(a)(2)(A) (the “Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition”).  Despite pleading guilty, Cruz raised a bevy of arguments in his defense to have the charges against him dismissed, based on his contention that the Animal Venture Prohibition infringed on the “God given rights of New York gamecock farmers.”  He claimed that the Animal Venture Prohibition violated the First, Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, but the Court elected not to address many of Cruz’s arguments because he failed to cite legal authority to support them, and many of the arguments were “incomprehensible or irrelevant.”  Among the arguments addressed by the Court were Cruz’s claims that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition violates his rights to the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).  The Court also addressed Cruz’s claim that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition constituted an illegal taking of personal property under the Fifth Amendment.

Cruz’s First Amendment and RFRA claims were premised on an apparent Biblical reference that “God gave man dominion (control and rule) over the earth, animals, fish and fowl, and our Constitution is written to ensure that each person is equal in the freedom and exercise of our God given rights as each individual chooses to believe these rights exist.”  The Court ruled that the Animal Venture Prohibition passed constitutional muster, as it was a neutral law that was generally applicable, and was rationally related to the legitimate government interest of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”

In analyzing Cruz’s RFRA claim, the Court noted that even laws that are neutral and generally applicable can violate RFRA if they substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling government interest advanced in the lease restrictive means possible.  The Court determined that Cruz could not prevail on his RFRA claim because his supposed religious beliefs were not sincerely held:

Here, Cruz has failed to make a showing that the act of engaging in animal fighting ventures stems from sincerely held beliefs that are religious in nature.  Although Cruz continually refers to the “God given”  dominion of man over animals, he does not identify any specific religious tenets or practices that are burdened by the statute.  Nor does he identify any religion or denomination from which his beliefs derive.  Indeed, in “attest[ing] to the importance of the God given rights of the American farmer,” Cruz cites quotations in which the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, exalted agriculture.  This suggests that Cruz’s beliefs are philosophical or political in nature.

The Court also rejected Cruz’s argument that the Animal Venture Prohibition was an illegal taking of personal property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  Cruz argued that “animals are property” and that the Supreme Court held “the right of ownership of property includes the inherent right to use ones [sic] property.”  The Court was not persuaded, instead observing that the Supreme Court has held that there is no taking of personal property if the government proscribes only one particular use of the property (such as its sale), if the owner maintains other rights to the property.  Here, the Animal Venture Prohibition proscribed only one specific type of use (animal fighting), without affecting other allowable uses, and did not constitute a taking.

Photo by SUBHRO GANGULYsome rights reserved.

Mahwah, NJ Agrees to Settle Eruv Dispute

In December, we reported that the Mahwah Township Council (“Council”) voted to withdraw two ordinances at the center of RLUIPA litigation involving the expansion of an eruv proposed by Bergen Rockland Eruv Association (“BREA”).  According to Chabad.org, an eruv (pronounced (ay-roov) is “a technical boundary that allows Jews to carry in public areas on Shabbat.” The eruv at issue in this dispute encompasses a small portion in the northeastern corner of the Township (see photo above). Last week, the Council agreed to settle the lawsuit, subject to the following terms:

  • The existing eruv may remain, so long as BREA recolors or replaces it “to match the applicable utility pole as closely as practicable” within the next year.
  • In the event that BREA later seeks to expand the existing eruv within the Township, the parties must confer in good faith on such expansion, including reasonable alternatives to any proposed routes for expansion.
  • Maintenance of the existing eruv is to be the sole responsibility of BREA, but the Township “shall promptly respond to any acts of vandalism and/or any other illegal acts against the [eruv] tending to impair BREA’s ability to maintain the [e]ruv.”
  • The Township will pay BREA $10,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

The full text of the settlement agreement in Bergen Rockland Eruv Associations, Inc. v. The Township of Mahwah (D. N.J. 2018) is available here.

The photo above originally appeared in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.

Allenhurst, NJ Sued Under RLUIPA One Day and Settles the Next

The Borough of Allenhurst, New Jersey has settled a lawsuit against an Orthodox Jewish group just one day after the group filed suit in federal court alleging violations of RLUIPA’s unreasonable limits and exclusions and equal terms provisions.  As part of the swift settlement, the Borough will permit an addition to a residential home to be used as a synagogue, and will avoid having to pay attorneys’ fees, which are available to prevailing plaintiffs in RLUIPA cases.

The plaintiffs, Ohel Yis’hak Sephardic Synagogue of Allenhurst and Rabbi Moshe Shamah, sought to convert the Rabbi’s existing home into a synagogue.  Rabbi Shamah serves a Sephardic synagogue in Brooklyn, but spends his summers in Allenhurst.  For the past 20 years, he has used his home in Allenhurst to host religious worship for friends and family during the summer months, because there is no synagogue in the Borough.  Many members of the Brooklyn congregation follow the Rabbi to Allenhurst during the summer, and have caused the summertime Sephardic Jewish population in Allenhurst to steadily rise over the years.  To accommodate the growing Jewish population, the plaintiffs sought to build an addition to the Rabbi’s home to operate a “small religious facility where Sephardic Jews can gather to pray and learn.”  One hiccup in the plaintiffs plans – Allenhurst’s zoning code does not permit places of worship – either as of right or as conditional uses – in any of the 7 zoning districts.  Yet, the Borough allows similar secular assembly uses, such as art and cultural instruction, art galleries, fitness centers and restaurants.

The plaintiffs sued the Borough on January 23, 2018 in a two-count complaint alleging violations of RLUIPA (complaint available here).  The next day, the parties agreed to settle the case and the Court entered a Consent Order.  In the Consent Order, the Borough acknowledges that its “outdated zoning code, which the [Borough] intends to immediately address” completely “excludes religious facilities from its jurisdiction and unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions and structures within its jurisdiction.”  The Borough also acknowledges that its zoning code “treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.”  Despite these acknowledgments, the parties agree that the “Consent Order represents a compromise of a disputed claim, and shall not in any way be construed as an admission of wrongdoing or liability on the part of any Party.  Therefore, the parties shall be responsible for their own attorneys’ fees and costs associated with this action.”

The Consent Order in Ohel Yis’hak Sephardic Synagogue of Allenhurst v. The Borough of Allenhurst (D. N.J. 2018) is available here.

City of Bayonne, NJ to Pay $400,000 to Settle Claims Over Mosque Denial

The City of Bayonne, New Jersey has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed this past summer by Bayonne Muslims, asserting that the city discriminated against the Muslim group after denying variances needed to convert an abandoned warehouse to a mosque (read our previous post about the lawsuit here).  As part of the settlement, the city will pay Bayonne Muslims $120,000 and Bayonne Muslims’ law firm $280,000.  Under the agreement, the city will allow the development of the mosque, subject to a favorable vote by the zoning board.  The proposed mosque is not to be used “for unrelated functions during prayer services,” there will be no on-site kitchen or cooking, and Bayonne Muslims “will add a second or third Friday services as needed if it exceeds capacity and seeks to accommodate additional worshippers.”  The zoning board will hold a hearing to consider the settlement agreement and Bayonne Muslims’ renewed application for variance relief to develop the mosque with 135 prayer mats.

Bayonne Muslims’ President, Abdul Hamid Butt, issued a statement: “We are so grateful for the support of so many of our fellow Bayonne residents through this long struggle and we commend the City of Bayonne for moving now to correct the wrong that was done to Bayonne’s Muslims. We are confident our application, considered on its merits, will be approved and we look forward to welcoming Bayonne residents of all faiths to the City’s first mosque.”

What is not clear is whether the U.S. Department of Justice will continue with its investigation into the city’s processing of the mosque application for possible religious discrimination, given that a settlement has been reached.  More on the DOJ’s investigation is available here.

The settlement agreement in Bayonne Muslims v. City of Bayonne (D. N.J. 2018) is available here.

CAFO Stinks, but Not a Substantial Burden

Do 1,400 cattle and 17.4 million gallons of cow waste in open-air lagoons, upwind and a half a mile from a religious youth summer camp, impose a substantial burden? As unpleasant as a concentrated animal feed operation (“CAFO”) may be, a neighboring religious organization cannot use RLUIPA as a shield to prevent its operation.

We originally posted about House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. d/b/a Harvest Christian Camp v. Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals, here. On January 16, the Court of Appeals of Indiana dismissed House of Prayer’s lawsuit that sought judicial review of a decision issued by the Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals (the “Board”) allowing a special exemption permit to Milco Dairy Farm, LLC (“Milco”) to operate a CAFO. One of five issues on appeal was whether the Board’s approval violated RLUIPA and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

The Court never considered whether the CAFO operations imposed a substantial burden on House of Prayer’s camp operations under RLUPIA, because it concluded that RLUIPA was not applicable. Under RLUIPA, no government may impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. However, RLUIPA defines a land use regulation as “a zoning… law or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use. . . of land. . . , if the claimant has. . . [a] property interest in regulated land. . . .”  42 U.S.C.A. § 2000cc-5(5).  Therefore, the Court concluded that “[b]y its plain terms, RLUIPA may be raised only by a claimant who has a ‘property interest in regulated land.’”  House of Prayer argued that RLUIPA was applicable because “regulated land” means any land affected by regulation, even if the regulation is directed at land where the claimant may not have a legal interest.

Interpreting RLUIPA in the broad manner advocated by House of Prayer, the Court reasoned, would lead to absurd results—Since the proposed CAFO could potentially impact the entire Country, every citizen of the County would potentially have a RLUIPA claim.

Next the Court examined House of Prayer’s RFRA claim. RFRA has a broader reach than RLUIPA and applies to any law of general applicability that may impose a substantial burden on religious exercise. The Court disagreed with the Board’s assertion that House of Prayer provided no evidence of a substantial burden.  It did, however, credit the Board’s finding that Milco submitted sufficient evidence of mitigation efforts intended to abate noxious odors and avoid waste run-off from Milco’s property. For these reasons, the Court found that the Board’s finding that House of Prayer would not be substantially burdened was supported by substantial evidence.

The Court’s decision in House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. d/b/a Harvest Christian Camp v. Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals, is available here.

Photo by Rose Craftsome rights reserved.

County of Ventura, California’s Permitting Scheme Stricken as Prior Restraint on Free Speech

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that Ventura County, California’s conditional use permit (CUP) scheme for “temporary outdoor” events is an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.  Temporary outdoor events are defined in the County’s zoning code to include “[o]utdoor recreational events such as harvest festivals, amusement ride, historic re-enactments, animal events, art shows, concerts, craft fairs, weddings, and religious revival meetings.”  In this case, the plaintiff, Epona, LLC, owner of 40-acres in Ventura County, sought approval to host outdoor events, including weddings.  The Ninth Circuit determined that the zoning code lacked definite and objective guiding standards with respect to temporary outdoor events and afforded the County’s Planning and Zoning Commission (Commission) with unbridled discretion in violation of the First Amendment.

Epona, LLC sought a CUP for up to 60 temporary outdoor events per year, applied for a CUP, and obtained positive recommendations from county agencies reviewing the proposed use.  Zoning staff also recommended approval, but the Commission denied the application after neighbors complained, identifying the following reasons for denial:

(1) The venue is not compatible with the rural community …;

(2)  The venue has the potential to impair the utility of neighboring property or uses and is inconsistent with the finding set forth in the [zoning code]; and

(3)  The venue has the potential to be detrimental to the public interest, health, safety, and convenience, or welfare and is inconsistent with the finding set forth in the [zoning code]

Epona, LLC appealed the Commission’s denial to the Board of Supervisors.  This time, zoning staff recommended denial of the CUP application.  The Board’s vote was split evenly, having the effect of affirming the Commission’s denial.  Epona, LLC sued the County of Ventura, asserting that the zoning code violated the First Amendment on its face, as well as RLUIPA’s equal terms provision.

The Ninth Circuit found the CUP standards for temporary outdoor events to be without clear and definite standards, constituting a prior restraint on free speech.  The CUP standards are as follows:

(a) consistent with the intent and provisions of the County’s General Plan and of Division 8, Chapters 1 and 2 of the Ventura County Ordinance;

(b) compatible with the character of surrounding, legally established development;

(c) not [] obnoxious or harmful, [and must not] impair the utility of neighboring property or uses;

(d) not [] detrimental to the public interest, health, safety, convenience, or welfare;

(e) compatible with the existing and potential land uses in the general area where the development is to be located;

(f) on a legal lot; and

(g) approved in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act and all other applicable laws.

The Ninth Circuit determined that while criteria (f) and (g) are objective, (a) through (e) are subjective and do not provide sufficient guidance to permitting officials.  The Court specifically took issue with criteria (c) and (d) (“have a harmful effect upon the health or welfare of the general public” or be “detrimental to the welfare of the general public … [or] to the aesthetic quality of the community or the surrounding land uses.”).  Even though the CUP scheme required specific factual findings, the Court stated that this was not “necessarily determinative of whether a statute confers excess discretion.”  The Court was also troubled that there was no time limit for the Commission to act on a CUP application.  The lack of a time limit, along with the lack of definite and clear standards, caused the Court to conclude that the CUP permitting scheme was not “content neutral” and was a prior restraint on free speech.

This decision is an important one for municipalities, as the conditional use permit criteria identified by the Ninth Circuit as granting unbridled discretion in county officials may be similar to criteria found in other zoning codes.  After all, an overarching purpose of zoning is to protect public health, safety, and general welfare.  It is not clear how this decision would have come out if there were, in fact, a time limit for the Commission to act on a CUP application.  Regardless, municipalities may wish to review their codes to ensure that permitting requirements provide property owners and land users with precise standards to be applied uniformly.

Epona, LLC also alleged that the zoning code violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision, despite the fact that Epona conceded that it was not a religious assembly or institution.  The Court, however, rejected this claim, finding the equal terms provision inapplicable to a secular assembly or institutional use.

The decision in Epona v. County of Ventura (9th Cir. 2017) is available here.

Church Alleges Religious Discrimination Over Baltimore County’s Conditions on Approval of Development Plan

Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church (the “Church”) has sued Baltimore County, Maryland and the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (together, “Baltimore County”), challenging Baltimore County’s conditional approval of the Church’s development plan, which sought to expand an existing house of worship.  This is the fourth congregation to bring RLUIPA claims against Baltimore County in the past year.  See our previous posts here and here.

Specifically, the Church alleges that the conditions imposed on approval require it to, among other things, provide its neighbors and other interested persons with advance notice of scheduled and special events and stagger its Sunday worship services.  Additionally, the Church contends that the condition regarding water runoff, which requires the Church to “take any and all immediate and reasonable measures to address and eliminate” any water collection issues connected to the Church’s property, will be “impossible to comply with,” as runoff, pooling and drainage are existing issues in the area and on the property.

The Church’s Complaint, available here, alleges that Baltimore County has violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, as well as the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and the Maryland Constitution.

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