DOJ Rolls Out “Place to Worship” RLUIPA Initiative; Sues New Jersey Borough

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice announced its “Place to Worship Initiative” to help protect houses of worship and religious institutions against discrimination in the local land use process.  Attorney General Jefferson Sessions announced the new initiative and stated that President Trump “is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise [of religion], and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans.”  The full statement reads:

The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private – it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together.  Under the laws of this country, government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion – not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws.  President Trump is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise, and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans.  By raising awareness about our legal rights, the Place to Worship Initiative will help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.

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Church Sues Virginia County Over Religious Discrimination Claims

Last month, a church known as Love of Life Fellowship, Inc. (the “Church”) sued the County of Chesterfield, Virginia, alleging religious discrimination resulting from its desired acquisition and use of 38 acres at 500 Baptist Drive in Chester, Virginia (the “Property”).  The Church has used the Property for two years for religious worship and other activities, including community outreach, serving the homeless, assisting those struggling with and recovering from addiction, helping veterans, and providing youth programs.  The Church filed suit after the County sought an injunction to prevent the Church from operating at the Property. Continue Reading

SCOTUS Rules Baker Who Refused Wedding Cake To Same-Sex Couple Suffered Religious Discrimination

The Supreme Court issued its anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  The case concerns a Colorado baker’s refusal to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple because the baker’s religious beliefs are that “God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that and should be the union of one man and woman.”  The Supreme Court ruled that the proceedings conducted by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission deprived the baker of an impartial hearing because Commission members openly disparaged the baker’s religious views.  The case demonstrates that local decision-makers, including those in the land use context, must remain fair and neutral when religious beliefs are at issue – even when they disagree with such beliefs or find them offensive. Continue Reading

Yee Haw! Cowboy Church’s Religious Rodeo Clears Some Hurdles

Texas’ appellate court recently issued a decision involving the interplay between religious freedom and governmental police power, a “cowboy church,” and NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard).  True to its name, Denton County Cowboy Church (the “Church”) began hosting weekly rodeo events in 2009 at its outdoor arena.  The arena is on the Cowboy Church’s 7-acre tract of land in the Town of Ponder, Texas.  In 2014, the Cowboy Church bought a 12-acre parcel adjoining the 7-acre tract to build a new rodeo.  It began constructing the new 61,000 square foot rodeo arena and applied for a commercial building permit.  The Town issued the permit in July 2015, and several neighbors complained to the Town to revoke the permit and that construction of the rodeo be halted.  In August 2015, the Cowboy Church filed an application for a special use permit to construct a “multi-use event center” on the 12 acres, which would “be used to house among other things, youth ministry, fellowship, and sermons as well as cowboy related rodeo type events, which currently occur and have been occurring for the past several years on [the original tract] in the outdoors, uncovered and uncontained.”  According to the Cowboy Church, its new arena would result in less noise, light and dust pollution on nearby property owners than its existing arena. Continue Reading

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of City’s Approval of Chabad Religious Center as Moot

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the lower court’s decision dismissing an Establishment Clause challenge over the approval of a religious center.  The lawsuit was brought by two residents who live near a mixed-use, two-story religious center proposed by Chabad of East Boca, Inc. (“Chabad”).  In 2007, Chabad sought to acquire land located in the City of Boca Raton’s single-family zone, where “places of worship” are prohibited.  The same year, the City introduced a proposed ordinance that would have allowed places of worship on land originally zoned for residential use.  The ordinance would permit Chabad to develop the land in the single-family zone as a place of worship.  Residents opposed the ordinance and the City stopped considering the ordinance in 2008.  Chabad then abandoned its plans to develop the property in the City’s single-family zone. Continue Reading

Chabad and Toms River Settle RLUIPA Suit

Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River, Inc. (“Chabad”) has settled its religious discrimination lawsuit against the Township of Toms River, New Jersey (“Township”), putting to rest its allegations that the Township violated each of RLUIPA’s provisions by requiring Chabad to obtain a variance to continue to use its property (“Property”) as a Chabad house, house of worship and religious school. We previously posted about this case here and here. Continue Reading

New York State Trial Court: Supporting Trump is Not a Religion

New York Post reports that a New York state trial court judge tossed a discrimination lawsuit brought by Greg Piatek, a President Trump supporter, against a West Village bar.  According to the article, Piatek was told to leave the bar because he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat shortly after Trump took office.  According to Piatek, he was told: “Anyone who supports Trump – or believes in what you believe – is not welcome here!  And you need to leave right now because we won’t serve you!”  Piatek sued in Manhattan Supreme Court, alleging that being kicked out of the bar “offended his sense of being American.”  Piatek claimed that by wearing the hat he was paying spiritual tribute to the victims of 9/11, and that wearing the hat was part of his spiritual belief.  When asked by the judge how bar employees were supposed to know of Piatek’s unusual religious beliefs, Piatek’s lawyer responded: “They were aware he was wearing the hat.”  When pressed by the judge as to the number of members in the spiritual program, Piatek conceded that it is a creed of one.  The Court ruled that supporting President Trump is not a religion, and dismissed the lawsuit: “Plaintiff does not state any faith-based principle to which the hat relates.”

Original photograph by nevermindtheendsome rights reserved.

Federal Court Rejects Church’s Religious Land Use Claims Based on Government’s Legitimate Zoning Concerns

A federal court in Nevada has ruled that the denial of a church’s special use permit application to develop property with a house of worship did not violate RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, or state law.  Significantly, this case demonstrates the bedrock principle that land use agencies may deny zoning applications for religious use for legitimate zoning concerns.  In this case, the land use agency deemed the site in question inappropriate for a house of worship because it was adjacent to a dangerous intersection with existing traffic problems and would be incompatible with the quiet neighborhood. Continue Reading

Christian School’s Claims Dismissed as Unripe Under Midrash Sephardi

A district court in the Southern District of Florida has dismissed as unripe claims brought by Centro de Ensenanza Palabra de Fe, Inc. (“Centro”), a tax-exempt religious organization that operates a daycare center and elementary school in addition to offering religious services, against the City of Hialeah, Florida (“City”).  Centro alleged that the City had violated its federal constitutional and statutory rights by requiring it to obtain a conditional use permit to continue operating the elementary school, even though the zoning code did not require that Centro obtain a CUP when it first opened. Continue Reading

Rabbi Lacks Standing for some RLUIPA Claims, Says Federal Court

A federal court in Maryland has found that a rabbi was without standing to bring claims under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination and equal terms provisions, since those claims can be brought only by an “assembly” or “institution.”  While the court dismissed these claims, identical claims brought by a Jewish congregation – an assembly or institution under RLUIPA – continued. Continue Reading

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