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When Cities Violate Churches' Constitutional Rights

Court concludes that churches in this situation are entitled to monetary damages.


Another court has concluded that a religious organization is entitled to monetary damages if a city violates its constitutional rights. A religious organization applied for a conditional use permit to construct a building on its property. A city official denied this application, and the organization promptly filed a second application. This application also was denied, and this denial was affirmed by the city council. The organization appealed to a local trial court, which declared the city's actions to be in error. The organization then filed a third application for a conditional use permit, and this application was denied by the same city official. When the city council upheld the denial of this application, the organization filed another lawsuit. This time, the organization demanded monetary damages on the ground that the city's actions had violated its constitutional rights. Specifically, the organization alleged that the city's actions violated its constitutional right to due process of law. The basis for the organization's claim for monetary damages was title 42, section 1983 of the United States Code (a federal civil rights statute, often referred to simply as "section 1983"), which specifies:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any state … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States … to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law ….

A trial court ordered the city to issue the building permit, but denied the organization's request for monetary damages under "section 1983." The organization appealed, and the Washington state supreme court ruled that the organization's constitutional rights had been violated by the city' actions, and that the organization was entitled to monetary damages. Even more significantly, the court ruled that the organization was entitled to a summary judgment on the issue of monetary damages. This means that the court found the organization's demand for money damages to be so clearly authorized by law that it refused to submit the question to a jury. In concluding that the organization's constitutional rights had been violated by the city's repeated denial of a building permit, the court observed: "Along with the vast majority of federal courts, we recognize that denial of a building permit, under certain circumstances, may give rise to a substantive due process claim …. Such a violation is made out, however, only if the decision to deny the permit is 'invidious or irrational' or 'arbitrary or capricious.'" The court concluded that the city's actions in denying the building permit satisfied this standard. In particular, it pointed to the fact that the city's decisions were "without consideration and in disregard of the relevant facts and circumstances."

This case is important since it illustrates the availability of monetary damages under "section 1983" for a city's violation of a church's constitutional rights. The importance of such rulings cannot be overstated—for they represent a recognition of an extremely potent weapon that is available to churches. City officials cannot violate a church's constitutional rights with impunity. Note that this case did not involve the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. Rather, the organization alleged that its constitutional right to due process of law has been violated. The court concluded that this constitutional right is violated by the arbitrary denial of a building permit. Church officials should keep "section 1983" in mind when confronted by government officials who seem to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Lutheran Day Care v. Snohomish County, 829 P.2d 746 (Wash. 1992).

See Also: Zoning Law

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  • September 1, 1992

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