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Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial of Injunction in RLUIPA Case

In Harbor Missionary Church Corp. v. City of San Bueanaventura, 642 Fed. App. 726 (9th Cir., 2016), plaintiff had a church ministry serving the homeless. Defendant told Plaintiff it needed a conditional use permit (CUP) and, when it applied for the same, denied it. Plaintiff then brought a suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), requesting a preliminary injunction to keep its ministry available pending appeal. The trial court denied the injunction, finding the church suffered no substantial burden under RLUIPA because it could move its ministry elsewhere and that the denial of the CUP was the least restrictive means of meeting the City’s concerns.

In 2004, Plaintiff purchased the subject site for a church and daycare, both of which were permitted uses, and began its homeless ministry in 2008, asserting that such service was Biblically enjoined. Because the ministry attracted people from outside the neighborhood and had incidents that annoyed residents, there was a public outcry and in 2013, the City informed Plaintiff a CUP was required. Staff recommended approval with conditions; however the planning commission denied the application and this suit and motion for preliminary injunction ensued.

The court found it had jurisdiction and noted the standard for review of the denial of a preliminary injunction, which was an abuse of discretion and also the standard for issuance of such an injunction, which included a likelihood of success on the merits, likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of the preliminary injunction, whether the balance of equities tips in Plaintiff’s favor, and whether the preliminary injunction is in the public interest.

Regarding success on the merits, the court noted allegations of a substantial burden on an integral part of Plaintiff’s religious ministry and the substantial delay, uncertainty and expense of relocation pending the outcome of litigation, finding those allegations sufficient if based on the pleadings and supporting materials. In this case, the declaration of Plaintiff’s pastor and its stated beliefs regarding helping the homeless as part of its ministry were sufficient. It was error for the trial court to question those beliefs and to determine that the ministry could be relocated and divided in the face of church statements to the contrary. Because the CUP denial prevents the ministry from occurring, and relocation would cost $1/4 Million (along with the delay, uncertainty and expense of relocation), the court found sufficient evidence of a substantial burden under RLUIPA.

As Plaintiff demonstrated a substantial burden, the City must show it has furthered a compelling state interest in promoting public safety, preventing crime, and that it has employed the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The court assumed the state interest was compelling and turned to whether the least restrictive means were used. Of importance was the planning staff report recommending approval, rejecting the trial court view that the proposed

Use was “so incompatible “with the neighborhood and harmful to public safety that denial was the City’s only option. The court determined that denial was not the least restrictive means of accommodating religious practice to the City’s concerns over public safety and crime. Thus on remand, the trial court was directed to determine which of the proposed staff conditions the church would, or would not, accept if the use were approved and whether the conditions would or would not protect the neighborhood from negative effects of the church’s ministry. The trial court denial of the preliminary injunction was reversed.

Clashes between church missions to the homeless and neighbors are a common phenomenon finding its way to RLUIPA litigation. In this case, the summary and conclusory denial of the preliminary injunction in the light of the evidence of a substantial burden showing and the consequences to the homeless too great, and the least restrictive means showing too insubstantial for the City to prevail. It may be too early to tell whether that lesson has been learned throughout the Ninth Circuit.

Harbor Missionary Church Corp. v. City of San Bueanaventura, 642 Fed. App. 726 (9th Cir., 2016).

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