Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 29, 2011

Fed. Dist. Court Finds No Violation of ADA, Rehabilitation or RLUIPA in Permit Denial for Secular Day School Operating in Property Owned by Religious Group

Plaintiff Calvary Christian Center (“Calvary”) brought suit in district court challenging the City of Fredericksburg (“the City”) for denying Calvary a special use permit to house a school for disabled children on its premises.  Cavalry alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”), and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and sought a preliminary injunction enjoining the City from prohibiting Calvary’s tenant from operating a school in the church building. 

Calvary’s tenant, Fairwinds Day School (“Fairwinds”), provides a private education for students with disabilities.  Fairwinds had a history of violating zoning ordinances, failing to secure the appropriate permits on more than one occasion.  Calvary applied for a special use permit to allow Fairwinds to operate its school in the Calvary building.  At that time Calvary still possessed an active special use permit for a day care business in their building, but had yet to actually open the business.  The City Council (“the Council”), which maintains the sole authority to issue special use permits, met three times to consider the application.  The vote, however, resulted in a tie, effectively rejecting the application.  

The District Court considered the ADA, RA, and RLUIPA claims and Calvary’s desired relief, a preliminary injunction.  It looked at each claim and the likelihood of success on the merits, and analyzed standing issues that may preclude the ADA and RA claims.  The Court found that Calvary lacked standing to bring the ADA claim because it did not have a close enough relationship with Fairwinds or its students to bring a third party claim, nor were the school and its students hindered from bringing suit on their own behalf.  Its claim of associational discrimination failed because Calvary did not allege any unlawful discriminatory effect that Calvary itself suffered as a result of its association with Fairwinds.  Calvary lacked standing for its RA claim for the same reasons. 

The Court went on to discuss the likelihood of success on the ADA and RA claims, and considered the issues as though Calvary had standing to sue.  It found that Calvary did not establish it was likely to succeed on the merits of its ADA claim because they could not show discriminatory intent.  The testimony of the council members who voted against issuing the permit gave legitimate and believable explanations for their decisions.  Similarly, the Court found no likelihood of success on the RA claim, based on the absence of any factual basis for concluding the City denied the permit solely based on the students’ disabilities.

 Finally, the Court considered the City’s alleged violation of RLUIPA, enacted to prevent governments from promulgating land use regulations that would substantially burden the free exercise of religion.  Calvary claims that the operation of Fairwinds on its property is an exercise of its belief to minister to emotionally and mentally disabled children.  However, the Court found insufficient factual pleadings that showed the school’s operations were anything other than secular, and cited case law supporting the proposition that structures used by religious organizations but for secular purposes are not automatically protected as religious expression.  The Court further noted the significance of the financial relationship between Calvary and Fairwinds, finding it to be no different than any other landlord/tenant arrangement.  An examination of the exercises prohibited by the denial of the permit and the tenets of Calvary’s religion made clear that the operation of a school for disabled children was not intimately tied to Calvary’s beliefs.  

Even if the agreement between Fairwinds and Calvary had been a religious exercise, the Court found that Calvary still could not show that denying the permit constituted a substantial burden on its religious exercise.  It quickly disposed of Calvary’s argument that their building was the only place that could house the school, stating that Calvary would not suffer a financial burden, nor was there any supporting information regarding the lack of feasible alternative locations.  Additionally, Calvary did not show that it would be unable to carry out its church missions without housing Fairwinds on its premises.  Lastly, the Court found that Cavalry would not suffer irreparable harm, especially given their delay in filing an action to begin with.  It denied Calvary’s motion for a preliminary injunction. 

Calvary Christian Center v. City of Fredericksburg, 2011 WL 2899184 (E.D. Va., 7/18/11)

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