Key point. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits state and local governments from imposing a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion unless the regulation is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
* A federal district court in Michigan ruled that a city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying a church the right to use its property for church purposes on the basis of a parking ordinance. A church congregation wanted to relocate because an increasing number of members lived in another part of town. The church found a two-story building in the target area and began considering its purchase for use as a church. The building was located in a zoning district in which churches were a permissible use. To operate as a church, however, a “certificate of occupancy” had to be obtained.
The church’s pastor began meeting with the city’s zoning director. The pastor claimed that the director welcomed the church’s purchase of the property and assured him that the building could be used as a church. Based on these representations, the church purchased the building. The pastor later alleged that the church would never have purchased the building if the zoning director had not represented that the building could be used as a church.
Several months later, after discovering that the building was being used for church services, the city sent a letter to the pastor indicating that the church would have to vacate the building because it did not have a certificate of occupancy permitting the use of the property as a church. A state trial court later issued an order requiring the church to cease and desist using the building.
The main reason the church was unable to obtain a certificate of occupancy was that the city required 95 parking spaces and the property only had 73.
The church filed suit in federal court, claiming that the city’s denial of the certificate of occupancy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA states:
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution—(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
This subsection applies in any case in which … the substantial burden is imposed in the implementation of a land use regulation or system of land use regulations, under which a government makes, or has in place formal or informal procedures or practices that permit the government to make, individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.
RLUIPA defines a “land use regulation” as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.”
The court noted that are three steps in evaluating the application of RLUIPA to a particular case: (1) Does it apply? (2) Is there a substantial burden to religious exercise? (3) Does the government have a compelling interest that is achieved by the least restrictive means? The court’s analysis of each of these steps is summarized below.
(1) Does RLUIPA apply?
RLUIPA applies if a plaintiff can show that a substantial burden is imposed on religious exercise “in the implementation of a land use regulation under which the government makes … individualized assessments of the proposed uses of the property involved.” An individualized assessment involves a “case-by-case evaluation of the proposed activity.” The court concluded that this requirement was met since the city’s parking ordinance was a land use regulation that involved individualized assessments. While the application of the parking ordinance’s formula for determining the minimum number of parking spaces was “mechanistic” and involved no subjective element, it nonetheless permitted “variances” from the minimum parking space requirements, and the process of granting a variance could involve subjective judgments. As a result, the process was an individualized assessment of a land use regulation, triggering the application of RLUIPA.
(2) Substantial burden
The next issue to consider in a RLUIPA claim is whether the governmental action imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. If a plaintiff can demonstrate a substantial burden on its religious exercise, then it establishes a prima facie case of a RLUIPA violation.
The church claimed that the city’s denial of the parking variance prevented it from obtaining a certificate of occupancy for the building, which in turn prevented it from use of the building for religious worship. The city argued that the church could not prove the existence of a substantial burden on religious exercise. It claimed that the parking ordinance was “blind” to the particular use of property, and simply considered the number of people on the property. The city further argued that the parking ordinance did not prohibit the building’s use as a church, but simply prohibited use if there was an inadequate number of parking spaces for the total number of people.
The Court disagreed with the city’s position:
Based on the language of RLUIPA, the land use regulation need not specifically target religious exercise. A land use regulation that is specifically blind to religious use of land can still substantially burden religious exercise …. It is undisputed that the parking ordinance prohibits the church from using its building, and that the church wants to use its building for religious exercise. The city had the power to grant a variance to the parking requirement currently barring the church from use of the building, but it did not do so. Therefore, there is an application of a land use regulation which prevents or burdens the church from using its building for religious exercise …. Here, it is undisputed that the church cannot use its building for worship purposes. Worship services are fundamental to the practice and exercise of one’s religious beliefs. Selling its current building and searching for another is not a mere inconvenience to the church. Instead, the court finds that the burden is substantial. Consequently, the court finds that the church has established a prima facie case of a RLUIPA violation by demonstrating that the application of the parking ordinance imposes a substantial burden on its religious exercise.
(3) A compelling government interest and least restrictive means
Once a church establishes a prima facie case of a RLUIPA violation by demonstrating that the land use regulation imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise, the burden shifts to the city to demonstrate that the land use regulation is the “least restrictive means” to further a “compelling government interest.”
The city insisted that regulating parking and traffic in order to protect the safety of citizens is a compelling government interest, and that the parking ordinance is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. It also claimed that the church’s building had insufficient parking spaces for the intended use, and consequently the overflow parking would clog the surrounding streets endangering the public safety and welfare.
The court concluded that the city’s denial of a parking variance to the church was not supported by a compelling governmental interest, for two reasons. First, the city conceded that it could not explain why three worship space seats corresponded to one parking space, as opposed to four worship space seats to one parking space. As a result, the city failed to prove that “use of worship space will lead to a certain number of extra vehicles affecting parking and traffic.” Second, the city claimed that the parking ordinance was necessary to prevent off street parking along the major street on which the church property was located, thereby keeping the street free for residents’ and emergency vehicles. The court pointed out, however, that parking was already prohibited along the street in question and therefore “there is no possibility that the street will become clogged with parked vehicles.” Given the city’s “lack of evidence demonstrating that if the church used the building for worship there would be overflow parking that would hurt the local traffic situation, an outright prohibition of the use of the building for worship is simply an excessive means to accomplish the city’s stated traffic interest. Therefore … the court finds that the city has failed to show that prohibition of the use of the building for worship is the least restrictive means to accomplish its traffic and parking interests.” The court concluded that the city had failed to rebut the church’s prima facie case of a RLUIPA violation, and therefore the city’s denial of the parking variance and the application of the parking ordinance to bar the church from obtaining a certificate of occupancy violated RLUIPA.
(4) Constitutionality of RLUIPA
The city claimed that RLUIPA was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The court rejected this claim, relying mostly on a 2005 ruling of the Supreme Court. Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709 (2005). In the Cutter case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a section in RLUIPA protecting the rights of institutionalized persons to exercise their religion. The Michigan court concluded that the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Cutter case “can be equally applied to those provisions of RLUIPA involving land use regulations.”
Further, the court concluded that under Section V of the Fourteenth Amendment Congress has the power to enact legislation necessary to secure the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, including RLUIPA. The court noted that every federal appeals court, and almost all federal district courts which have considered this issue “have found that RLUIPA is a constitutional use of congressional power.”
(5) Equal protection claim
The church argued that the city’s denial of the certificate of occupancy was a violation of the Constitution’s guaranty of the equal protection of the laws, since there was evidence that the city had granted certificates to two other religious congregations that had used the property in the past. The court agreed: “The church has brought forward evidence showing that it has been treated differently than the two previous churches which had lawfully occupied the building and that it has been treated differently than the other city entities who did not need to go through the same administrative procedures as it did in order to receive a certificate of occupancy or site plan approval.”
Application. This case is important for three reasons. First, it represents an excellent analysis of the application of RLUIPA to a city land use regulation restricting a church’s ability to engage in worship. The three-step analysis, and the court’s rejection of each of the city’s predictable arguments, will be helpful to any other church that finds itself in a similar situation.
Second, the court upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA. Significantly, it relied on the United States Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling upholding the constitutionality of RLUIPA’s “institutionalized persons” protections.
Third, the case demonstrates that the constitutional guaranty of the equal protection of the law bars a city from applying land use regulations to a church in a way that is inconsistent with the treatment of other churches in the community. Lighthouse Community Church of God v. City of Southfield, 2007 WL 30280 (E.D. Mich. 2007).