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Pennsylvania Magistrate Recommends RLUIPA Injunction

Hope Rising Community Church v. Municipality of Penn Hills, 2015 WL 7220380 (W. D. Pa.) involved a growing church congregation that leased an industrial building, making $7000 in improvements and gaining $10,000 in materials and labor donated by members. The pastor claimed that the staff gave him the verbal go-ahead, but the staff denied such a conversation. When the pastor applied for an occupancy permit, it was denied and the church was ordered to stop holding services at the site. Under defendant’s code, churches are only allowed as conditional uses in residential zones, and not permitted in the Light Industrial District where Plaintiff’s site lies. Uses not permitted outright or conditionally under the code are deemed prohibited. Defendant also denied Plaintiff’s use variance application, so the only uses recognized by Defendant are clothing distribution, food bank and volunteer meetings. The church alleges its membership attendance has dropped from 85 to from between 27 and 40.

The church brought this suit under the federal constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and requested a preliminary injunction. Such an injunction will issue only when a plaintiff shows a likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm if the injunction is denied, granting relief will not further harm the moving party and that the public interest favors such relief.

In particular the church alleges two facial claims under RLUIPA in support of its request for an injunction. The first was under the “unreasonable limitations” provision, which prohibits such limitations on religious assemblies, because the zoning ordinance does not allow religious assemblies outright anywhere, and that the conditional use process for allowing religious uses is itself an unreasonable limitation. The court found no unreasonable limitation of religious uses under the zoning scheme by these limitations and the additional opportunity to allow the use anywhere with a variance. Costs, procedural requirements and engagement in the political process do not in themselves constitute a violation of RLUIPA. These restrictions are not unreasonable and the motion for a preliminary injunction on this ground was denied.

Plaintiff’s alternative ground for the preliminary injunction was the “Equal Terms” provision of RLUIPA, which prohibits treatment of religious assemblies in a manner more rigorously than non-religious assemblies. Under case law, plaintiff must present a better-treated secular comparator under the land use regulations, though the comparator need not serve identical functions as the religious assembly. In this case, the court used parks and playgrounds as “assemblies” and educational facilities as “institutions” for comparison purposes and noted that the light industrial district required that any use create a minimal impact, be conducted within enclosed buildings, does not use open space for the storage of raw materials or finished products and not be offensive in terms of its externalities. The church was like an educational institution and the municipality failed to show how that use would cause greater harm to the Light Industrial District and its objectives than any of the comparison uses. The Church has shown adequate irreparable harm in its loss of congregation. Taken together, these factors justify a preliminary injunction.

This case is a reminder for municipal counsel to review their zoning regulations so as to avoid unnecessary potential litigation.

Hope Rising Community Church v. Municipality of Penn Hills, 2015 WL 7220380 (W. D. Pa.).

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