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Fourth Circuit Remands Dismissal of RLUIPA Claim

Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, 4th Circuit Case No. 11-2176 (2013) involved plaintiffs praying for relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) as well as several constitutional provisions.  Plaintiff had one main church and one satellite church serving 1500 weekly congregants with four services.  Because of the numbers, plaintiff was forced to postpone communion until after the services and to cut short its “altar call,” which involves discussions with those coming forth about their spiritual life.  The church also believed it required additional facilities as well.  The great number of congregants also affected other church ministries.

Plaintiff purchased a 119-acre parcel and proposed to put a larger church on it, but the property was on a county-designated agricultural reserve where the county preferred development rights be transferred to preserve agricultural land.  The county also did not provide for water and sewer services to be extended to that area.  In 2005, at the very same meeting, defendant both denied plaintiff’s application for a 3000-seat church facility and amended its water and sewer plans to prohibit extension of those services to the site.  State court challenges were ultimately fruitless.

While those challenges were pending by way of appeal, defendant initially granted permission to another church for a 1500-seat facility in similarly zoned property, but then denied the applicant’s request for water and sewer service.  Plaintiff then downsized its application to an 800-seat facility but while that application was pending, defendant revised its zoning ordinance to prohibit a private institution to have water and sewer services on agricultural reserve property.  Plaintiff’s was the only application pending at that time and it promptly brought suit in federal court, alleging RLUIPA violations as well as those of the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution and similar provisions of the Maryland Constitution.  The District Court granted summary judgment and plaintiff appealed.

The primary issue on appeal was whether defendant imposed a “substantial burden” on religious exercise which term includes the use, conversion or building on real property for the purposes of religious exercise.  The court did not use the Institutionalized Persons standard of pressuring a person to modify his or her religious beliefs as the government has less control over a person in a land use context and the government would rarely be able to force a person to violate religious beliefs because churches can move elsewhere.  Rather, the court said that the test was whether a government coerces a religious adherent or institution to change its behavior in a significant way so as to render religious exercise more difficult.

Besides applying the wrong test, the Fourth Circuit found that the trial court required that defendant must also have “targeted” plaintiff and its beliefs.  While such targeting is unconstitutional, RLUIPA does not require targeting under its “substantial burden” test, even if the burden is imposed in a neutral or generally applicable manner.  If there be such a burden, the public agency must use the least restrictive means and fulfill a compelling state interest.

Applying this standard, the court said the purchase of the subject site was predicated on building a church, which was permitted at the time.  Thus the denial of the permit inflicted a hardship on plaintiff, even though other properties may be suitable, as the delay, uncertainty and expense of selling one property and purchasing another “are themselves burdensome.”  While plaintiff faced the possibility of changing regulations (which changes were publicly being considered at the time) as well as an arguably discriminatory land use process, defendant had allowed churches on this in the same zone, which raised a sufficient question of material fact to preclude summary judgment.  The Fourth Circuit also found it significant that defendant denied plaintiff’s application instead of allowing a smaller footprint as a further factor in a substantial burden analysis, as is the inadequacy of plaintiff’s current facilities for its congregation.  A fact finder could conclude that plaintiff’s current facilities are inadequate and the planned facilities would alleviate that need.  Thus, the denial must satisfy strict scrutiny to show that the least restrictive to achieve a compelling state interest have been undertaken.  Preservation of agricultural land is a governmental interest, but defendant had not shown that it used the least restrictive means to do so through a minimum lot size, individualized review or otherwise.  Thus, summary judgment was reversed.

Plaintiff also claimed violation of RLUIPA’s discrimination and unreasonable limitation division.  The former prohibits discrimination against an assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.  Although neutral on its face, plaintiff alleges its evidence shows defendant’s hostility to large churches.  The court answered that while defendant took the steps it did to curb large scale uses, there was no evidence that it did so because of hostility to religion in general or churches in particular and was consistent in its application of the regulation to all larger uses.  There was no reason to reverse the grant of summary judgment on this point.

As to plaintiff’s unreasonable limitations claim, RLUIPA prohibits a land use regulation that “unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions or structures within the jurisdiction.”  This contention also failed for, while defendant limited religious uses in the rural density transfer zone, it did so evenhandedly throughout the county.

As to plaintiff’s constitutional claims, the court said that Maryland interprets its free exercise and equal protection constitutional provisions consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  Plaintiff did not prevail on its free exercise claim as it could not show that a law of general applicability hindered religious practices because of a religious motivation.  The court applied rational basis scrutiny to this claim and found that limiting non-farm uses on farm land was a rational policy.  Finally, the court rejected plaintiff’s “class of one” challenge under the Equal Protection Clause.  Thus the case was remanded only on the substantial burden issue.

This case does counsel care by state and local governments changing land use regulations and also when they deny religious uses in places where they had permitted previously.  No doubt the rational of this case will be tested in Oregon with its exclusive farm use and restrictive forestry use regulations and will be the subject of further disputes.

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