The U.S. Supreme Court will decide a petition for cert on September 24, 2007, in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals RLUIPA case – Vision Church, United Methodist v. Village of Long Grove, 468 F.3d 975. If the Court decides to hear the case, this will be the first RLUIPA case to address the land use aspects of the controversial federal statute. In addition to the opportunity to address the constitutionality of RLUIPA, the Supreme Court could also establish a uniform definition of what constitutes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise since RLUIPA fails to contain a definition and the circuit courts have adopted different tests. For example, the Seventh Circuit has held that under RLUIPA, a land use regulation imposes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise if it “necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise-including the use of real property for the purpose thereof within the regulated jurisdiction generally-effectively impracticable.” See,CLUB, 342 F.3d at 761.
NOTE: On October 1, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert in this case. Those waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on various aspects of RLUIPA will have to wait for another day.
In this case, the Church sued the Village of Long Grove (Illinois) alleging that the Village’s denial of their application for voluntary annexation, its subsequent involuntary annexation of their property, its enactment of a municipal Public Assembly Ordinance, and its denial of their applications for a special use permit to build and occupy a church on real property it had purchased violated the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), and various Illinois laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Village and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
According to the Village’s “Comprehensive Plan,” it is dedicated to preserving its “rural character,” to the “provision of a quiet countryside” and to the enjoyment of “open space.” The Zoning Regulations permit religious institutions (and other uses) as “special uses” in areas zoned as “R1,” “R2” and “R3” Residential Districts. At the time of the initial application, the property owned by Vision Church was not located in the Village boundaries, but in its application, the Church requested as a condition of annexation that the Village zone its property “Residential (R2)” and grant it a “special use” permit to construct a church complex on the property. Vision’s proposed plans called for a 99,000-square foot church facility, consisting of five main buildings and a sanctuary with over 1,000 seats. At the request of the Village, the Church submitted a revised plan, decreasing the size of the church to 56,200 square feet, consisting of three main buildings (a sanctuary, an administration building and a Sunday school building); the sanctuary would seat 600 instead of 1,000; and parking spaces were reduced from 400 to 240. In addition, the Church agreed to comply with some, but not all, of the Village’s conditions on construction. In August 2001, the Plan Commission voted to recommend the denial of the Church’s application for annexation, and this recommendation was accepted by the Village Board of Trustees.
Subsequently, due to an annexation of an adjacent piece or property, the Village involuntarily annexed the Church property. The Village zoned the property “R2” Residential, the zoning classification sought by the Church in its June 2000 application for voluntary annexation. In April 2002 an amendment to the Village’s Zoning Regulations was enacted restricting the size and capacity of buildings used for “public assembly,” such as “religious institutions, aquariums, libraries, museums, private schools, and other similar uses.” (“Assembly Ordinance”) Specifically, it provides that a complex comprised of three buildings located on fifteen or more acres, but not fronting a state highway, cannot exceed a total square footage of 55,000. It also imposes restrictions on parking, setbacks from the road and the flow of traffic. In January 2002, approximately four months prior to the passage of the Assembly Ordinance, the Church applied for such a permit. However, instead of the 56,200-square foot complex discussed in March 2001 during negotiations over voluntary annexation, the Church requested approval in its special use application for the original 99,000-square foot, 5-building, 1,000-seat sanctuary facility originally proposed in 2000. The application was denied.
The Circuit court found that by permitting churches in all residential districts as a special use, the municipality has not completely or totally excluded religious assemblies from its jurisdiction, and the Court noted that six churches currently operate within the Village. The Court continued, “The requirement that churches obtain a special use permit is neutral on its face and is justified by legitimate, non-discriminatory municipal planning goals.” The Court further held that the land use regulations violated neither the Establishment Clause nor the equal terms clause of RLUIPA since they applied equally to all assembly uses, whether or not religious in nature.
Thanks to Wendie Kellington, Esq. for raising awareness of the pending petition to the U.S. Supreme Court during the August 2007 ALI-ABA Land Use Institute. We will report back to our blog readers as soon as we learn of the SCOTUS decision.