Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 29, 2010

CA Court Finds No Violation of RLUIPA Substantial Burden Provision Where Religious Group is Required to Apply for Permit, and Failure to Prove Violation of Equal Terms Provision

The defendant, Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, was sued by the County of Los Angeles for operating an eight hundred-student school in an R-1 (single-family residence zone) without a conditional use permit. Defendant had filed an application for such a permit in May of 2008. However, four months later, plaintiff, the County of Los Angeles, received a complaint alleging that the defendant had opened the school on the property and that it had caused numerous noise and traffic issues in the community. As a result, the zoning inspector sent a Notice of Violation to the school, ordering it to cease operations within fifteen days.

In response to this notice, defendant applied for a “‘clean hands waiver’ pursuant to Los Angeles County Zoning Code section 22.04.110, which would allow it to continue to operate a school while the conditional use permit application was processed.” However, the clean hands waiver application was denied, and a Final Zoning Enforcement Order was sent to defendant, ordering the closing of the school within fifteen days or an imposition of a fine. Defendant appealed and was denied, yet did not cease to operate the school.

Plaintiff then sued alleging “violations of Los Angeles County Zoning Code sections 22.20.015 and 22.60.330” seeking “a declaration the properties are a continuing nuisance pursuant to Los Angeles County Zoning Code section 22.60.350; and that defendant and others be enjoined from maintaining a public nuisance; and that defendant be ordered to cease operating the school until the conditional use permit is secured.” In response, the defendant filed a cross-complaint alleging violations of title 42 United States Code Section 1983 which reiterated his purchase of the property, the request for a conditional use permit, as well as the request for the clean hands waiver. 

In December 2008, the County of Los Angeles filed a motion for a preliminary injunction supported by a supervising regional planner as well as a Los Angeles zoning enforcement inspector. The basis for this injunction focused on the “clean hands waiver,” in which the primary factor was whether or not the placement would have a detrimental effect on the community.  In this case, the regional planner, Mr. Gomez testified that the school would cause traffic and noise problems and that the property “did not have sufficient area to accommodate the ‘incoming/outgoing’ traffic generated by the school.” The defendant countered by asserting that after petitioning the county for a conditional use permit, no one had identified any problems, the school had paid $15,000 in filing and consultant fees as well as a mortgage of $22,000 per month, and that, if forced to close, the County would violate the school’s First Amendment Rights and cause irreparable harm. 

The trial court granted the plaintiff’s preliminary injunction motion, stating that the denial of the application was not a “substantial burden on the exercise of religious beliefs within the meaning of the act.” The Appellate Court reviewed this denial using a two-prong “abuse of discretion standard.” The first factor was the “likelihood that the plaintiff would prevail on the merits at trial.” The second prong was “the interim harm that the plaintiff [would be] likely to sustain if the injunction were denied as compared to the harm the defendant is likely to suffer if the preliminary injunction were issued.” Before this could be answered, the Court addressed whether land use regulations violated the substantial burden or Equal Terms provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Court held that the substantial burden provision was not violated, as the requirement for a school to get a conditional use permit and to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act was not a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedom within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. Section 2000cc(a)(1). Specifically, it did not bar the defendant from participating in religious activity, but only required the application for a permit, which the defendant was unable to obtain. 

The Court also held that the equal terms provision was not violated. Defendant asserted that it was violated by plaintiff’s refusal to grant its clean hands waiver when similar applications had been approved. The Court in this case asserted that “there is no evidence that any other entity seeking to use the property would be treated any differently,” and, in doing so, used Mr. Gomez’s evidence of the application process as well as his explanation regarding the unresolved issues with the California Environmental Quality Act. 

Los Angeles v. Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, 188 Cal.App.4th 851, 116 Cal.Rptr.3d 61 (Los Angeles County, Super Ct. 2 App. Div. 9/22/2010) 

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B216888.PDF


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