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Ripeness Remains a Basis to Reject RLUIPA Claims

In Miles Christi Religious Order v. Township of Northville, 2010 WL 5151645 (C.A. 6th Cir. 12/21/2010), members of the Miles Christi Order resided in a five-bedroom home and conducted private daily masses in a small eighteen-person chapel in a residential neighborhood.   In response to neighbor complaints about traffic and parking, township planners required that Miles Christi obtain site plan approval establishing sufficient parking and landscaping or seek a variance to the same.  Failing to respond to the township request, an enforcement action was filed. 

Miles Christi filed an action in federal court claiming a violation of RLUIPA as well as the free exercise clause of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The court rejected these claims on ripeness grounds.  Given that Miles Christi had not sought site plan approval or a variance; it found that Miles Christi will not suffer any hardship by delaying a federal court decision until the zoning board acts.  The court noted that without a definitive statement from the zoning board, the entity charged with interpreting the zoning ordinances, about which ordinances apply, the court was unable to determine whether the township went too far. 

In Roman Catholic Bishop v. City of Springfield, 2011 WL 31288 (D.Mass. Jan. 4, 2011), citing a decline in parishioners, the Diocese closed Our Lady of Hope Parish, built in 1925.  Although redevelopment plans had not been finalized, the Diocese was moving forward with the process of deconsecrating the building, including removing Catholic symbols and sale.  Concerned about the fate of the building, the City created a new historic district encompassing the church.  Once designated, any exterior alteration required either a certificate of appropriateness or exemption.  Rather than file for such a certificate, the Diocese filed a claim in district court and alleged violation of free exercise of religion, equal protection, RLUIPA and due process. The Diocese argued that the “mere enactment of the Ordinance violates its rights” and that the City targeted the church property because the Ordinance only burdens Our Lady of Hope Church and no other properties.  The Court disagreed finding that it was impossible to determine whether the Diocese’s plan would be unsatisfactory, until after the plan is created and reviewed.  As to the RLUIPA claim, the court determined that deconsecrating the church is protected by RLUIPA.  However, the court determined that the Diocese failed to show a substantial burden; that the obligation to seek administrative review of its plan was “anything more than an inconvenience.”

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