Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 18, 2007

RLUIPA Claim Dismissed by Federal Court on Ripeness Grounds

In dismissing a RLUIPA case on ripeness grounds last month, the Eastern District of Michigan left for another day the question of whether a church establishing housing to provide counseling and support for people who abuse alcohol and drugs as well as people with anger management issues constitutes a religious exercise pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).    

Grace Community Church purchased property, which had been used as a former Catholic Monastery, and applied to the town for a special use permit to enable it to establish a church and residential facility on the land (to be known as the Christian Discipleship Center). The Church claims that it believes that emotional problems, as well as drug and alcohol problems, are symptomatic of the “lack of Christ” in a person, and until the individual “found Christ,” these conditions would continue.  Therefore, they offer that their residential housing program will teach people with these symptoms to have a personal relationship with God.  

The Town granted a special use permit to operate the church, and ultimately revoked conditional approval for the residential housing. The permit for the housing was conditioned upon, among other things, that the premises would never be used as a halfway house or as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, that no more than fifteen people, pre-screened, would be in residence, and that the permit would be revoked if the conditions were breached.   The revocation of the permit followed evidence presented to the planning commission that the Church was operating a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.  The Church denied this claim.   

Ultimately, on a motion to dismiss, the Court concluded that the Church’s “as applied challenge” was premature, or not ripe for review, since they had not exhausted their administrative remedies by first appealing the revocation to the zoning board of appeals.  

 Grace Community Church v. Lenox Township, 2007 WL 2533884 (E.D. Mich. 2007).   

Note: There is a growing body of case law providing guidance as to the types of uses and programs run by religious organizations that may be entitled to protection under RLUIPA.  The Courts have noted that just because something is run by a religious organization does not automatically make it a religious use. Some recent examples: 

         School facilities, when used for secular and religious education, are religious. Westchester Day School  (SDNY 2006).

         A building to be used for a spiritual retreat that would lodge guests is a religious exercise. DiLaura v. Ann Arbor (6th Cir. 2002).

         Church day care facilities are sometimes deemed religious. Living Water Church of God v. Meridian (WD Mich. 2005). But other times, their religious character fails. Grace United Methodist Church v. City of Cheyenne (10th Cir. 2006).

         An assisted living apartment building operated by a church is not religious use. Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson v. City of Jackson (Mich. 2007).

         A church’s administrative building is not a religious use. See North Pacific Union Conference Association of the Seventh-Day Adventists v. Clark County (Wash. 2003). 

In all likelihood, the operation of housing for persons with drug and alcohol problems and/or anger management issues does not constitute a religious exercise for purposes of protection under RLUIPA.  Perhaps the court will get this case back eventually.


Responses

  1. This is one bizarre case. I’m wondering why didn’t the church also sue under the Fair Housing Act since recovery communities and halfway houses for people with drug/alcohol addictions are covered by the FHA? I think that the church’s reasoning to cover the halfway house under RLUIPA is very tortured, twisted reasoning. If you strip away all the rhetoric, you’ll see that residential recovery living arrangements tend to use a construct very similar to what Grace Church contends it wants to do — to get their residents to switch their addiction from drugs or alcohol to a “higher power” usually evoked as the Christian “God.” Good thing Buddists, Hindis, and Jewish folk never become addicts. (That’s a joke, oh so serious legal eagles).

  2. The following comment was submitted by Dan Dalton, Esq., who is the attorney for the Church. His contact information is included at the end of the posting. Also, Dan Dalton recently authored an outstanding article for APA’s Planning and Environmental Law on another RLUIPA case he was involved with. * * *

    Having represented many religious entities in RLUIPA actions, I have become accustomed to learning that there is always more to the story than is reported in the Court’s opinion. Grace Community Church vs. Lennox Twp. Michigan is just one of those cases.

    The facts of this case are largely undisputed. Grace Community Church was originally established in 1996 in New Haven, Michigan, to provide a place of worship for those who “just didn’t fit in” to a normal church setting. The church originally provided worship services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Beginning in 2000, the focus of Grace Church’s ministry began to include temporary housing and assistance individuals in need of spiritual counseling based on Christian principles. The Church established a home for four men as a test run of their transitional housing service, also known as a Christian Discipleship Training Center. This New Haven residential facility was very successful, prompting construction of an additional five new homes, including one for women. The Christian Discipleship Training Center quickly became the central focus of Grace Church’s ministry.

    Grace Church is a small evangelical church with less than 100 members. It purchased the subject property in Lenox Township. The property was originally built as a Monastery for the Catholic Church then later sold to a private group who used the building and land for adult nursing home and day care. Grace Church originally intended to use the property as an expanded residential facility in order to consolidate its entire ministry under one roof.

    In December, 2004 Grace Church, through Pastor William Pacey, applied for the appropriate special land use permits from the Township so Grace Community Church could operate legally as a Church and residential property. To this end, Grace Church appeared at several meetings of the Township’s Planning Commission from April through June, 2005. At the behest of Defendant, Grace Church submitted a special approval land use application in January, 2005. The planning commission considered the application at its April 25, 2005 meeting, its May 23, 2005 meeting and approved special approval land use at its June 27, 2005 meeting for the small chapel to use it as a church, only.

    The Township planner then recommended approval of the site plan and special approval land use for the Christian Discipleship Center. Thereafter, on July 27, 2005 the planning commission recalled the site plan for consideration indicating that site plan approval was for using the property as a church, only, and not for a Christian Discipleship Training Center. The planning commission decided not to make a decision and tabled the site plan for consideration for another month.

    On August 22, 2005 the Planning Commission considered the site plan, again, then ultimately approved the site plan for special land use approval allowing the Christian Discipleship Training Center with restrictions that violate RLUIPA. Thereafter, on September 26, 2005, the Planning Commission unilaterally revoked Grace Church’s special land use permit on the mistaken belief that the drug and alcohol counseling occurred on the site. Revocation, which is an individualized assessment of Grace Church’s activity made in light of Defendant’s land use restrictions, of the special land use permit burdens Grace Church’s religious exercise even more severely than imposing the conditions in the first place, since revocation completely precludes Grace Church from exercising its religious rights. The planning commission relied on a police report submitted by an individual who alleged in a report to the Defendant’s police department that she thought she would receive drug and alcohol treatment, but did not. Rather, she described her activity at Grace Community Church as “we would work out in back picking corn in the cornfield, and also picking tomatoes, peppers, etc.” “Every time I was there we did not discuss anything about drugs.” In fact, the complainant could not have been clearer that Grace Community Church did not provide rehabilitation counseling: “We never sat down and I talked about my drug problem.” The Township attorney wrote its board and advised it not to revoke the approval as it would violate RLUIPA. Nonetheless, the planning commission revoked the special approval land use restrictions finding that Grace Church violated the conditions by proffering drug and alcohol counseling.

    On July 23, 2007, Grace Church filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on its RLUIPA claim, seeking to have this Court enter an Order finding that Defendant violated RLUIPA, grant it immediate injunctive relief to permit it use the property as a Christian Discipleship Center, and set this case for
    trial on damages with respect to the RLUIPA claim and liability and damages under the constitutional claims. In response to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Grace Church filed its Brief in Opposition on July 30, 2007 where Grace Church argued that Defendant had violated its Equal Protection rights arising under the Fourteenth Amendment.

    A hearing was held on August 24, 2007, in which opposing counsel led the Court to believe the Township was willing to allow Grace Church to occupy and use the property in exchange for its agreement not to conduct drug and alcohol counseling. After the Court believed a type of settlement was impending, opposing counsel backtracked and said he did not have authority to speak on behalf of the Township. Opposing counsel stated, on the record, he would go back to the Township for the purpose of proposing a special meeting, and make an effort to get Grace Church’s special land use permit back on the planning commission’s agenda. Based on this, the Court dismissed the case without prejudice and requested the Church to go back to the planning commission.

    To no one at Grace Church’s surprise, the planning commission finally scheduled the matter for a public hearing. The Township attorney recommended that the approval be granted with additional restrictions after Rev. Pacey affirmed a third time that (a) there would be no drug and alcohol counseling, (b) there would be no court referral’s and (c) the property would not be used as a half way house. Again, the planning commission refused to follow the law, refused to approve the special land use approval then tabled the matter for extra time to “study” the issue. As a result, Grace Church cannot use the property as a Christian Discipleship Center.

    With respect to the decision that was reported, the Court found that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction based on ripeness of the RLUIPA count, only. The Court did not address Grace Church’s equal protection claim yet dismissed the claim regardless. Therefore, Grace Church has sought rehearing on three main grounds.

    First, this Court concluded that it had no subject matter jurisdiction over Grace Church’s RLUIPA claim due to lack of ripeness. In doing so, the Court choose not to follow binding Sixth Circuit authority in DiLaura v. Ann Arbor Charter Township, 30 Fed. Appx. 501 (6th Cir., 2002) which has ruled that exhaustion of administrative is not required when asserting a RLUIPA case. Second, the Court did not address Grace Church’s equal protection claim in its Order. Grace Church established a viable and ripe equal protection claim for review. Therefore, a motion for rehearing is necessary in order for the Court to resolve this issue before deciding whether a dismissal is appropriate. Finally, Grace Church prays that this Court finds it was error to dismiss, but if the Court still has an inclination to rule that its claim is unripe, Grace Church seeks to have its claim stayed rather than dismissed entirely.

    The next actions include a decision form the planning commission on the use, and a decision from the Court on re-hearing. Other actions may result based on the decisions of these Courts.

    The story behind the decision hopefully enhances the reader in understanding the necessity of RLUIPA and its application to the use herein.

    Daniel P. Dalton
    Tomkiw Dalton, plc
    Attorneys for Business
    321 Williams Street
    Royal Oak, Michigan 48067
    (o) 248.591.7000
    (f) 248.591.7790
    http://www.tomkiwdalton.com


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