Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 16, 2007

Northern District of California Denies Preliminary Injunction on RLUIPA Claim

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel sought both a rezoning and a conditional use permit from the City of San Leandro to enable them to move to a larger facility to accommodate their growing congregation on land they purchased.  The church had grown from 65 people in 1993 to holding three services on Sundays for over 1,700 as of 2005. In addition, the Church runs numerous programs during the week for children, the disadvantaged women, youth and people struggling with addictions. Additionally, with only 154 parking spaces, the Church maintains that its members are required to park far away, sometimes requiring a 20-minute walk. The Church found property in an area zoned for “Industrial Park,” which was set aside in the City’s General Plan for industrial and technological activity.  The Church maintains that by moving to this larger property, the congregation will be able to more fully follow their sincerely held beliefs. At the time, however, the zoning ordinance did not allow for any assembly uses (churches, clubs and lodges) to locate in an Industrial Park district or any other commercial or industrial districts.  Churches were permitted to locate in residential districts subject to obtaining a conditional use permit.   The church applied for a rezoning.  In March 2007, the City Council approved the designation of an “Assembly Use Overlay District,” applying the designation to 196 properties (over 200 acres total) that the planning staff identified as suitable.  The Church claimed, however, that few of the properties rezoned were of adequate size for congregations over 1,500 and that these parcels were located in undesirable areas.  The Church modified its rezoning application to request that the new Overlay District be applied to their property and they also submitted an application for a conditional use permit for a proposed assembly use on the property.  The City sent a letter to the Church indicating it could not review the application for the conditional use permit on the grounds that it was incomplete (it was missing, among other things, information regarding the square footage of the proposed sanctuary area and other spaces within the building, information on parking spaces, lighting, HVAC equipment and hours of operation), and when the Church failed to respond, no further action occurred on the application. Furthermore, following a hearing, the City denied the Church’s application for a rezoning on the grounds that it was not consistent with the General Plan and would constitute spot zoning.             

In their RLUIPA challenge, the Church asked the Court for a preliminary injunction that would allow them to build the Church while their appeal was pending.  The Church alleged that the denial imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise and that they were not treated on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions.  With respect to the conditional use permit application, the Court noted that the Church did not complete the application requirements, and that it would therefore not determine the likelihood of success on an incomplete application. As to the rezoning denial, the Court found that the Church did not make a sufficient showing of likelihood of success as to both the alleged substantial burden and equal terms violations. The Church failed to provide evidence that there were no other options available.  In distinguishing the recent 9th Circuit decision in Guru Nanak Sikh Soc. of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, 456 F.3d. 978 (2006), the Northern District noted, “While it is true that under Guru Nanak, a religious group need not show that there is no other possible location where it could build its church, it is not true that there is no need for any showing at all.”   The Court explained that the 9th Circuit did not decide that the failure to provide a religious group with a land use entitlement for a new facility necessarily constitutes a substantial burden under RLUIPA, rather, the 9th Circuit decided that under the specific facts in that case, the County had imposed a substantial burden because of the broad reasons for denial which the 9th Circuit found could be easily applied to future applications. In distinguishing this case, the Court noted that here, the Church had not previously applied for a permit or rezoning and been denied, and the reasons given by the City were more specific than the reasons given in the Guru Nanak case.  As to the “equal terms” allegation, the Court noted that the Church did not focus on the two criteria that formed the basis of the City’s denial, and they failed to show that City allows other similar assembly uses in areas where churches are not allowed. 

 International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, 2007 WL 2904046 (N.D. Cal. 10/2/07). 

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