City Ordered to Pay Fees, Damages for RLUIPA Violation

St. Pete Beach sought to restrict the beachfront church from soliciting donations from the public in exchange for the use of its parking lot.

Key point 7-06.4 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 court in Florida awarded a church $254,000 in attorneys’ fees and $15,000 in damages in a lawsuit alleging a city government’s actions constituted a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

The church sued after the city imposed its land use regulations to prohibit the church from allowing the public to park in its parking lot for free. The church solicited donations, but they were optional. The city fined the church $1,000.

The church alleged that the city violated RLUIPA by imposing its regulations to restrict the church’s use of its parking lot. The court entered a preliminary injunction securing the church’s religious rights with respect to the church’s use of its parking lot.

The parties then reached a settlement agreement resolving all of the issues except for the amount of attorneys’ fees the church would be awarded.

In particular, the settlement agreement provided that the church may continue to allow the general public to park in its off-street parking lot and solicit charitable donations. The city also agreed to pay the church $15,000 in damages. Since the church was the prevailing party under RLUIPA, it became entitled to attorneys’ fees.

The court ultimately ruled the church was entitled to $254,000 in attorneys’ fees.

What this means for churches

RLUIPA specifies that state and local governments cannot subject religious organizations to a land use law that imposes substantial burdens on the free exercise of religion unless the law is supported by a compelling governmental interest. It specifies:

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.

It should be noted that RLUIPA provides for attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in any litigation.

The law states: “In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of … the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act … the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee.” (42 USC §1988)

This is an important point for church leaders to keep in mind when they succeed in lawsuits against state and local government agencies for violations of RLUIPA.

Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church v. City of St. Pete Beach 2022 WL 1242482 (M.D. Fla. 2022).

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