Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 5, 2010

Denial of Permit for Fitness Facility Does Not Violate RLUIPA Substantial Burden Provision

New Life Worship Center, after receiving a special use permit, constructed a private regional high school on its property where it also owned and operated a church that was zoned in a “Planned Corporate” Zoning District.  Two years after opening the high school to students, New Life opened two fitness areas and a dance studio inside the high school on each side of the gymnasium originally open to the students only.  New Life then began advertising and distributing brochures to market the fitness areas to the general public for use with a nominal fee.               

Smithfield Zoning Officials notified New Life the special use permitted only allowed the operation of a high school, and any activities going on the campus had to be directly related to the school, and not the parish.  On appeal, the Zoning Board upheld the Zoning official’s decision to shut down the fitness center and dance studio.  They determined that the fitness center and dance school were not being used exclusively as an ancillary use to the activities of the school, but rather were operating under the business category which was outside of the scope of the permit.  

New Life then filed applications seeking two special use permits allowing for the operation of its fitness center and dance studio within the high school building, and Zoning Board held four properly noticed public hearings.  After the first two hearings, the Town’s Technical Review Committee (TRC) was called into to review New Life’s site plan, and determined the proposal was reasonable with the exception of the operation of the fitness center and dance studio on Sunday mornings during church hours.  Although the Zoning Board found the use of the subject property for commercial health and fitness center was a permitted use by the Special Use Permit, they denied New Life’s application on the grounds that the proposed use was incompatible with the existing use of the high school; Allowing public access created a potential health, safety, and welfare problem for the students, and such an adverse impact could not be minimized or alleviated.  

New Life appealed this decision to the Superior Court of Rhode Island, arguing the denial was arbitrary and capricious, characterized by abuse and discretion, erroneous in view of the whole record, a violation the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Rhode Island Religious Freedom Restoration ACT (RIRFRA) , and that the board exceeded its authority.  The Board argued New Life failed to sustain its burden showing the proposed use was compatible with the existing use, its findings were supported by testimony acknowledging the safety issues, and the denial did not support a RLUIPA or RIRFRA claim. 

The court found the Zoning Board’s decision that operation of the fitness center and dance studio would have an adverse impact on the safety of the students was supported by substantial evidence.  Evidence included a letter by the Town Planner, stating the high “school is not adequately segregated from the health club area and that the security is an issue”, along with personal observations by the members of the Board that allowing individuals of the general public into a school increases the chance of harm. The Board’s findings were not erroneous, as the evidence in the record supported the safety procedures were inadequate. 

New Life contended that the Zoning Board’s denial of the proposed fitness center and dance studio violated the concept embodied by RLUIPA that “if one is entitled to build a church, he may not be denied the opportunity to build accessories as well,” and thus created a substantial burden on its religious exercise.  The Court found the building, used to generate revenue to “help defray some of the costs New Life incurred in maintaining the high school” was not a reasonable use in connection with the activities of the church and thus not automatically protected as a religious exercise.  Although the use of fitness may be an integral part to the mission of New Life’s church program, the fact that it would give the public accessibility to the high school students, prompting safety and security measures, made it a health safety and welfare issue not constituting an ancillary use to the Church itself.  The denial of the permit resulting in New Life’s inability to operate a commercial fitness center was not a substantial burden, as it did pose any pressure on the members of New Life, rendering religious exercise on the property impracticable.  The Court found that the disallowing open access to the high school building in fear of potential danger to students was the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.  New Life was permitted to seek a permit to operate the fitness center anywhere else on their property, and no steps were taken to prevent students or church-going members from using the center. 

As to New Life’s claim under RIRFRA, which allows civil actions to be brought against governmental authorities for improperly restricting exercise of religion, the Town properly restricted the permit request because “religious institutions must observe the fire laws, the sanitary restrictions, and the building codes which apply alike to all, and which protect the health and safety of the public.”  The use of a fitness center open to the public within a high school, even by a religious institution, is still subject to reasonable regulations, and there was nothing in the findings to suggest New Life could not operate the fitness center elsewhere.  For the same reasons found under the RLUIPA claim, New Life was not substantially burdened by the Zoning Board’s denial, the evidence presented was not enough to support either claim.  The Court held that New Life’s rights had not been prejudiced and the Zoning Board’s decision was not arbitrary, capricious, characterized by an abuse of discretion, or erroneous in light of the evidence, and thus the Board’s denial for the application for a special use permit was affirmed. 

New Life Worship Center v. Town of Smithfield Zoning Board of Review, 2010 R.I.Super. Lexis 101 (R.I. 7/10/10) 

The decision can be found here.

Thanks to Dwight Merriam of Robinson & Cole in Hartford, CT for sending this case.

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