Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 24, 2012

5th Circuit Court of Appeals Remands RLUIPA Equal Terms Case for Preliminary Injunction Determinations

Opulent Life Church sought to operate a religious establishment in the City of Holly Springs, Mississippi. The ordinance in effect at the initiation of this action “explicitly singled out ‘churches’ for unfavorable treatment.”  The church filed an action in federal court alleging violations of the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (hereinafter “RLUIPA”).  The Church also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction suspending the enforcement of the ordinance.  The District Court denied the motion upon a finding of no substantial threat of irreparable harm.  Immediately prior to oral arguments on this appeal, Holly Springs enacted an ordinance banning all religious institutions from the historical Courthouse Square.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit vacated and reversed the prior order, finding the District Court abused its discretion.

Opulent Life’s congregation has expanded to the point of being too large to occupy their current place of worship.  The church’s mission is to introduce as many followers as possible to the church’s teachings.  As a result, the church wanted to relocate to a new space in order to fulfill their mission.  Opulent Life found a site in the Courthouse Square area that could accommodate their growing congregation and entered into a lease.  Opulent Life sought the necessary permits to operate the church, but was denied due to the requirements of the past zoning ordinance.  Although given no specific reason for the denial, the church believes it was denied because the application failed to satisfy two requirements; that the land use be consented to by 60% of residents within a 1300 foot radius, and be approved by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

Opulent Life simultaneously filed this action and sought a preliminary injunction.  The District Court denied the injunction, prior to Holly Springs’ response, finding no substantial threat of irreparable harm.  This finding was based on the current place of worship being large enough for the current congregation – the new space was needed to allow for future growth.

Before addressing the merits of the appeal, the Fifth Circuit first had to determine if it was justiciable due to the repeal of the old ordinance.  First, the court ruled that the appeal, and thus the church’s initial claim, is not moot, based on the rule that “a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.”  Such cases are not moot as the defendant can reinstitute the initially challenged provision following the culmination of the action.  In addition, the claim is not moot because the church also seeks retrospective relief.  The court also found the case was ripe, as the action is fit for judicial review, because it is a pure question of law, and there would be a hardship without such review, as the church could not use the space.

Finding the claim justiciable, the Fifth Circuit moved to the merits of the motion for a preliminary injunction.  To be awarded a preliminary injunction, the movant must show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, substantial threat of irreparable harm without the injunction, the threatened injury outweighs the harm to the defendant, and “that the injunction will not disserve the public interest.”  Opulent Life asserts the District Court’s finding of no substantial threat of irreparable harm was both factually and legally false.  The Fifth Circuit nonetheless went through each of the four factors.

Both the church and the United States assert that the RLUIPA Equal Terms provision is substantially likely to succeed on the merits.  This provision prohibits governments from treating religious assemblies on less than equal terms than nonreligious assemblies.  Since both ordinances facially treat religious assemblies different than nonreligious assemblies, the court found that a prima facie case was made, and the burden shifted to the government to show equal treatment.  Since the burden shifted, the government has to satisfy the two part Fifth Circuit Equal Terms test, which requires a determination of “(1) the regulatory purpose or zoning criterion behind the regulation at issue, as stated explicitly in the text of the ordinance or regulation; and (2) whether the religious assembly or institution is treated as well as every other nonreligious assembly or institution that is ‘similarly situated’ with respect to the stated purpose or criterion.”

Holly Springs conceded that the old ordinance violated this Equal Terms test, as it placed additional heavy burdens on religious institutions without justification.  Addressing the second ordinance, the purpose stated in the regulation is to “‘to designate the area . . . for certain retail, office and service uses which will complement the historic nature and traditional functions of the court square area as the heart of community life.’”  The court held that insofar as Holly Springs was trying to create a commercial district, it failed as museums and other noncommercial, nontaxable property uses are permitted in the district.  In addition, the court held that the “heart of community life” purpose would likewise fail because non-religious civic uses are permitted.  Beyond these findings, the Fifth Circuit would not go any further, and remanded the issue, as Holly Springs did not have an opportunity to proffer their purposes for the ordinance.

Next, the court addressed the second factor for the preliminary injunction, whether there is a substantial threat of irreparable harm.  At a basic level, the court found this factor was satisfied as Opulent
Life has alleged violations of RLUIPA and the First Amendment.  In support, the Fifth Circuit quoted the Supreme Court, which stated that, “‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’”  The Fifth Circuit provided that this statement applies equally to RLUIPA rights.

Holly Springs tried to distinguish the present case from those that created the aforementioned standard, attempting to require the court to apply the facts and find actual irreparable injury.  The court found this argument to be invalid, but nonetheless stated that the facts would support irreparable injury, as the church has to refuse new members due to the lack of space, which is contrary to the church’s mission. The court stated that “the sufficiency of this evidence is buoyed by the rule that courts may not second-guess a religious entity’s sincere belief that certain activities are central to or required by its religion.”  The finding of irreparable harm is further supported by the fact that Opulent Life will lose their lease if they cannot begin operation in a timely manner.  The Fifth Circuit found the evidence of irreparable harm “refute[d]” the District Courts finding.  Given the above, the Fifth Circuit found the District Court abused its discretion and reversed its denial of the preliminary injunction.

The court next addressed the last two factors, whether the harm to the plaintiff outweighs the harm to Holly Springs, and whether the preliminary injunction would disserve the public interest.  Holly Springs argued that it should be permitted to put forth evidence on the balancing factor prior to a determination being made, as the District Court never reached this factor.  The Fifth Circuit agreed with Holly Springs, and remanded this matter to the District Court.  Addressing the fourth and final factor, the court held that when on remand, if a likelihood of success on the merits is found concerning the new ordinance, then the preliminary injunction would be in the public interest and meet this factor.  This is because “‘[I]njunctions protecting First Amendment freedoms are always in the public interest.’”  As before, this principle applies equally to RLUIPA freedoms.  Thus, this factor must be addressed on remand as well.

Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, 2012 WL 4458234 (5th Cir., Sept. 27, 2012).

The opinion can be accessed here.


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