In February 2007, plaintiffs, Born-Again Christians, were informed that the religious activities they had been holding in their home and in the barn on their property were not authorized, since city ordinances considered the activities “church use” which required a permit. In May 2007, the plaintiffs submitted a plan to construct a building on their property to be used for bible study and worship, but that plan was withdrawn in December 2007 when the city proposed changing the parking requirements for places of worship. Plaintiffs then filed for a building permit in November 2008 to construct a building in their backyard, which plaintiffs assured officials “would not be used for a public place of worship.” On the basis of that assurance, the city issued the permit in 2009 and the structure was built. The building was allegedly not advertised as a public place of worship, but approximately forty to 50 of plaintiffs’ family and friends gathered there for weekly bible study and worship.
In June 2009, plaintiffs were served with a search warrant and city officials inspected the property, finding a sign lying face down on the lawn advertising dates and times of Christian worship. The inspection resulted in several notices of building and zoning violations. Plaintiff Michael Salman was convicted in 2010 by the Phoenix Municipal Court of 67 building and zoning code violations related to the property. Salman appealed those convictions. In the meantime, plaintiffs continued holding worship at their residence with family and friends, resulting in additional charges in 2011 for violations of the building and zoning codes.
In this action, plaintiffs sought injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, alleging violations of their free exercise rights under the U.S. and Arizona Constitutions; equal protection; free exercise rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA); free exercise rights under the Arizona Freedom of Religious Exercise Act; due process; civil conspiracy; and negligent supervision by the City of Phoenix. The federal court dismissed the civil conspiracy claim in August 2011. Defendants here move to dismiss the remaining claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Defendants argued that the federal court should abstain from adjudicating the case in favor of ongoing state proceedings under the test developed in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). This three-step test instructs federal courts to abstain in favor of state proceedings if the state proceedings are ongoing, if they implicate important state interests, and if the plaintiff has been provided adequate opportunity to litigate his federal claims through the state proceedings. The court noted there are two narrow exceptions to the Younger abstention, which say that abstention would be inappropriate if the state proceedings are motivated in bad faith or if “the challenged statute is flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence, and paragraph.”
Here, the court determined that the state proceedings against the plaintiffs for the building and zoning violations were still ongoing, since the initial convictions had been appealed and new charges had been filed, and that a declaration by the federal court on the matter would lead to the same “impermissible disruption of state proceedings” contemplated in Younger. Further, the court noted that the state was in the midst of ongoing criminal proceedings against the plaintiffs, and that such proceedings implicated important state interests. Finally, while the plaintiffs initially proceeded pro se and were apparently not aware of the need to raise these defenses at the initial trial, the court held that they had an opportunity to avail themselves of the opportunity to raise these constitutional claims, but that they failed to do so.
Further, the court held that the plaintiffs’ case did not qualify for the Younger exemption for bad faith because the plaintiffs could not show defendants commenced prosecutory action against them with no reasonable expectation of conviction. Since the plaintiffs continued to hold worship sessions illegally on their property, even after the initial round of charges, they could not make the case that the city officials pursued the enforcement in bad faith. The court also held that plaintiffs had not established the second exception that the statute was “flagrantly violative . . . in every clause, sentence, and paragraph.” Since all three of the Younger factors were present, and the plaintiffs could not establish that either of the Younger exceptions should apply, the court held that plaintiffs’ federal claims—for injunctive relief and for damages— should be dismissed without prejudice.
After dismissing the federal charges, the court declined to adjudicate the plaintiffs’ state law claims, which the court noted were best resolved by a state court. The court cited judicial economy, convenience, fairness, and comity when declining to hear the state claims.
Salman v. City of Phoenix, 2011 WL 5024263 (D. Arizona 10/21/2011)
The Court Order can be accessed at: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/arizona/azdce/2:2011cv00646/601259/29