Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 27, 2011

Federal District Court Rejects RLUIPA Substantial Burden and Unreasonable Limitation Claims, as well as Constitutional Challenges to City Ordinance Designating Single Church Parcel as Historic District

Our Lady of Hope Parish decided to close on January 1, 2010 due to a decrease in clergy and parishioners.  Pursuant to the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church, a closed parish may begin the process of deconsecrating church property and so the Dioceses began making plans to deconsecrate the parish. Many in the Springfield community were upset to learn of the parish closing and after urging the City to create a new historic district to encompass the church and prevent it from being destroyed, the Historic Commission held public hearings regarding the possibility of creating a new historic district.  Following the hearings, the Commission approved an Ordinance that would establish the “Our Lady of Hope Historic District” to preserve the church, and the Ordinance was subsequently enacted into law.

The Diocese brought an action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief rather than filing for a certificate of exemption.  Specifically, they alleged violation of free exercise of religion, equal protection, violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and due process violations. 

The Diocese argued that the “mere enactment of the Ordinance violates its rights.”  More specifically, they argued that the City targeted the church property because the Ordinance only burdens Our Lady of Hope Church and no other properties.  They also argued that to file for a certificate of exemption in order to make changes to the church property results in delay, uncertainty and expense.  Defendants argued that these issues were not ripe for review because plaintiff did not apply for an exemption.

The court determined that the Diocese’s argument that the Ordinance prohibits the preservation of proper disposition of religious symbols was unfounded.  More specifically, the court determined that the review by the Historical Commission prohibits alterations to the property unless the commission first issues a certificate of exemption.  In other words, it was not known at the time of the commencement of the suit whether or not the Diocese’s plan would be deemed unsatisfactory and would therefore be denied an exemption.  Moreover, the court stated that “as a general rule, a property owner must seek a variance of file an appeal with a local zoning board before filing suit.”  The Diocese failed to do this.  The court noted that the discussion concerning a failure to apply for an exemption only applies to the Diocese’s claims that are premised on its inability to deconsecrate its church.

As to the RLUIPA claim, the court determined that the deconsecration of a church is protected by RLUIPA because it encompasses an exercise of religion.  Despite having met the first prong of the relevant test for a RLUIPA claim, the court determined that the Diocese’s argument fails because compliance with the Ordinance is de minimis.  The Ordinance did not impose a substantial burden on the Diocese.  The court also dismissed the cause of action under subsection (b)(3)(B) of RLUIPA because the Ordinance did not limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

Finally, the court determined that defendant’s were acting within their statutory authority by creating a single-parcel historic district.  The Historic Districts Act gave broad discretionary authority to municipalities to determine which properties should be preserved due to their historic value.   As such, the argument that the Ordinance was enacted improperly as an independent statute is incorrect.  Rather, the court explained, the Ordinance was the means by which defendant’s carried out its authority pursuant to the Historic Districts Act.

In sum, the Diocese’s motion for summary judgment was denied because they brought this action before submitting an application for exemption pursuant to the Ordinance.  As such, no constitutional or statutory rights of the plaintiff had been violated.

Roman Catholic Bishop v. City of Springfield, 2011 WL 31288 (D.Mass. Jan. 4, 2011)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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