Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 14, 2012

Fed. Dist. of Connecticut Finds no RLUIPA Violations in Denial of Certificate of Appropriateness in Historic District

Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County sought declaratory relief and damages as a result of alleged discriminatory behavior perpetrated by the Borough of Litchfield, the Historic District Commission of the Borough, and individual members of the Commission.  The Borough defendants sought summary judgment as to all the counts against them, and the individual defendants did the same.  The United States District Court, District of Connecticut granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment in whole, and denied Chabad’s motion for partial summary judgment.

Litchfield, Connecticut has been described by the National Park Service as “[p]robably the finest surviving example of a typical late 18th century New England Town.”  The Borough established, pursuant to Connecticut law, the Historic District Commission to control construction and modification of buildings in the historic district.  The Commission lawfully established regulations to assist them in the preservation of the district’s historic character.  Chabad purchased a property in the district and sought a certificate of appropriateness to operate a religious facility in the Victorian residence, which would also house the rabbi and have a guest apartment.  The proposal sought to add three stories and 17,000 square feet to the 2,600 square foot structure, which was rezoned in the 1970’s from residential to commercial.  The Commission denied the application without prejudice, permitting resubmittal of an application that would include an addition no larger than the original house.  Chabad did not resubmit the application, instead brining an action under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The court determined that the Borough’s historic district laws were facially neutral and generally applicable, as the code and its exceptions restrict religious institutions to the same extent as non-religious institutions.  The court said that given that the local law is neutral and generally applicable, and not applied arbitrarily, capaciously, or unlawfully, “Chabad cannot establish a substantial burden on the free exercise of its religion.”  Since Chabad could not show a substantial burden, the court stated they would need to show that the Borough did not have a rational basis for the local law.  For the law to survive review, the law must be reasonable and rationally related to a permissible state objective.  In this case, preserving aesthetics is a legitimate government objective.  Additionally, the requirement that one obtain a certificate of appropriateness is rationally related to this purpose.  Thus, the law survives rational basis review and the “defendants are entitled to summary judgment as to the free exercise claim.”

The court then proceeded to address Chabad’s RUILPA equal terms claim.  The equal terms provision of RLUIPA requires that religious institutions be treated on equal terms with similarly situated non-religious institutions.  The first secular institution Chabad referenced, a library,  was found not similarly situated, as the library was given approval by a different body that was prohibited from considering the size of the addition.  Chabad’s second suggested institution was found not similarly situated because the assertion was made in a conclusory affidavit of Chabad’s attorney.  The court found this evidence was hearsay, unsupported, and insufficient as to create a genuine issue of fact.  Addressing Chabad’s final suggested similarly situated building, the court found it was not similarly situated because the assertion was also based on the attorney’s conclusory affidavit and without support.  Since Chabad could not show that a similarly situated secular institution was treated on more favorable terms than Chabad, they did not make a prima facie case for their claim, and summary judgment was granted in the defendants’ favor.

Next, the court addressed Chabad’s claim that the Borough violated the RLUIPA nondiscrimination provision, which prohibits local governments from discriminating on the basis of religion.  Under this standard, courts look to whether the local government applied a land use regulation differently between religious groups.  In making a showing under this standard, the plaintiff has the burden to again show similarly situated uses, requiring “some specificity.”  The court found Chabad did not meet this standard, as the institutions Chabad cited had originally been constructed as churches, were much larger to begin with, and the Commission did not authorize their construction, scale, or additions.  Chabad’s building was historically residential, relatively small, and under the authority of the Commission.  These differences barred equating them as similarly situated, and the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Addressing Chabad’s equal protection claim, the court provided that Chabad had the burden of showing it was treated differently than similarly situated institutions and the differential treatment was impermissible.  Since Chabad could not show any similarly situated institutions, no equal protection claim existed, and summary judgment was rendered in favor of the defendants.

Chabad also initiated a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim.  First, the court found that the Commission is subject to this statute, as it has the power to render final decisions.  Second, the court found that the Chabad had standing to sue under § 1983 because it had a redressable injury.  Under this claim, the court started out by addressing Chabad’s alleged Freedom of Speech violation.  As the certificate of appropriateness requirement does not distinguish between favored and disfavored speech, it is content neutral and subject to review under the intermediate scrutiny standard.  This review mirrored the substantial burden review, and likewise the court found Chabad did not make a prima facie case, and summary judgment was awarded in favor of the defendants. 

Continuing under the § 1983 claim, the court then addressed Chabad’s allegation that their constitutional right to Freedom of Association was violated.  The court found the standards used by the Commission were content neutral, applied the intermediate scrutiny test, and again granted summary judgment in favor of the Borough.  Next, the court addressed Chabad’s § 1983 Due Process claim, which asserted that the Commission’s “regulatory activities” are void for vagueness, but failed to specify the state or local laws that were allegedly vague.  The court found the Connecticut laws relied upon by the Commission were not vague, nor were they “void for vagueness due to arbitrary enforcement.”  The court found this claim failed as a matter of law and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

The court then moved to the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to Chabad’s conspiracy claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), which alleged the defendants conspired to violate Chabad’s “equal protection of the law, or of equal privileges or immunities.”  The court found that Chabad failed to raise a material issue of fact to support a claim for conspiracy, and thus granted the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  Since this claim failed, Chabad’s § 1986 claim failed as well because a § 1986 claim is predicated on a valid § 1985 claim.

Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, Inc. v. Borough of Litchfield, 2012 WL 527851 (Dist of Conn., 2/17/2012)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://courtweb.pamd.uscourts.gov/courtwebsearch/ctxc/SytGL6nn.pdf#xml=http://courtweb.pamd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/PDFResult.aspx.


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