Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 12, 2010

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds RLUIPA Claim Against Boulder, CO in Mega-Church Battle

In continuing litigation (see here, here and here) the Board of County Commissioners of Boulder (the County) appealed a district court’s ruling that the County’s denial of a church’s special use application to expand its size violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the entry of a permanent injunction to grant the special use permit.  

Rocky Mountain Christian Church (RMCC), located in an Agricultural District prohibiting offices, warehouses, and retail stores, was the County’s largest church complex with a main building, maintenance building, temporary modular units, and K-8 school on its 55 acre property.  In 2004 RMCC’s proposal to expand its buildings by 240,800 square feet to meet its future needs was deemed an over-intensive use by the land use staff, and was partially denied by the County because it conflicted with subjective goals of the Comprehensive Plan to curb urban sprawl, maintain open space to preserve the county’s rural character, and to sustain agriculture. 

RMCC sued the County, and after a twelve day trial, the jury found County violated the substantial burden, equal terms, and unreasonable limitation provisions of RLUIPA, issued a permanent injunction requiring the County to approve the special use application, but did not award RMCC any damages.  On appeal, the County challenged the injunction as being inconsistent with jury’s finding of no damages for RMCC, and argued the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to show it violated RLUIPA, and even if it was sufficient, had a full defense because it was rationally related to a governmental interest.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found there was ample evidence that the County treated RMCC less favorably in processing, determining, and deciding the special use application than it had treated a similarly situated nonreligious institution, violating the equal terms provision.  In 1995 the County approved a school’s special use application for expansion, similar in square footage to RMCC’s proposal, and it was also within an Agricultural District, and expanded existing uses.  Other substantial similarities between the proposals were both would have built same sized gyms, expanded student bodies by 120 students, and had similarly sized buffers between the building and the property line.  The County did not include its argument for an affirmative defense in its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, and other circuits disagree whether it’s implied in RLUIPA.   Here, the court found the land use rule was applied non-neutrally, as the County singled out the Church for adverse treatment, and would invoke a strict scrutiny defense had the County not waived the argument.  The court also held that the County’s regulation imposed unreasonable limitations on RMCC when the land use staff issued a new report embellished with erroneous calculations just before a hearing causing RMCC to spend more time and money in response, and due to the church’s attempts to appease County concerns by hiring a surveyor to confirm the proposed landscaping would block all views of the expansion from every neighboring home.

Because the jury’s verdict on the equal terms and unreasonable limitations claims were sufficient to support the injunction, the Court did not address the constitutionality of the substantial burden provision.  As to the issue of the permanent injunction, the Court held a lack of monetary damages did not render it inconsistent as equitable relief is appropriate where defendant is liable in part because damages are not quantifiable.  The injunction properly included the entire special use permit, because otherwise RMCC would have had to plan each expansion its needs would arise, forcing a piecemeal approach that would cause RMCC to be treated differently than similar secular institutions.  The Circuit Court found that the district court weighed the County’s zoning interests, holding there was no violation of the County Land Use Code and RMCC’s statutory right to free exercise of religion outweighed the negative impacts of expansion on the community, and the verdicts adequately supported their reasoning. 

Rocky Mountain Christian Church v Board of County Commissioners of Boulder Colorado, 2010 WL 2802757 (10th Cir. (Colo) 7/19/2010) 

The decision can be accessed at:

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