Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 10, 2014

Florida Church’s RLUIPA Suit Against City of Jacksonville Headed to Trial

Editor’s note: This post is republished with permission from the RLUIPA Defense blog which can be viewed here:

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has denied the City of Jacksonville’s motion to dismiss Church of Our Savior’s (formerly known as Resurrection Anglican Church) RLUIPA suit, and has scheduled the case for trial. The Church was founded in 2006 and has about 110 members and weekly parishioners. Its religious mission is “to revel in and share the grace that God has shown them,” and seeks to encourage members in the community to attend its religious services. Aside from religious services, the Church provides bible study classes, serves the homeless, and assists nearby schools.

Currently, the Church rents space from the City of Jacksonville Beach Historical Society on a six-month rolling basis. Under its lease the Church can only hold services for four hours per week, and it wants to have more time for worship. It also is not permitted to make repairs or alter the chapel of the space it leases to accommodate its religious needs. The Church leases additional space from a separate owner for its administrative offices, and is relegated to holding its men’s bible study sessions in the back of “Colonel Mustard’s” – a popular hamburger restaurant. These limitations, the Church alleges, prevent it from attracting new members to its congregation, in contravention of its religious beliefs.

To alleviate these burdens, the Church began searching for a single location from which it could practice its religion. In 2012, the Church found property in the City’s “Residential, single family (RS-1)” zoning district, and acquired an option to purchase the property (Property). In this zone, “public and private parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities” are allowed as-of-right, but churches must obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) to locate there. The Church alleges that the Property “is the only available property to ideally fit its needs . . . .”

In March 2013, the Church submitted a CUP application to construct a one-story, 7,440 square foot building containing a sanctuary and additional space that could hold more than 200 people, and with a children’s play area for the congregation. The staff of the City’s Planning and Development Department prepared a report recommending approval of the application, because the proposal “represents a reasonable low intensity use of the undeveloped parcels surrounding the City’s lift station, and would serve as transition between the soon to be developed commercial parking facilities to the east, and the Hopson Road neighborhood to the west and south.” Five residents from the neighborhood opposed the application, and the Planning Commission denied the application.

The Church submitted another CUP application in August 2013, this time characterizing the proposed children’s play area as a public park. The Planning and Development Department staff again recommended approval for the same reasons as before. Neighborhood residents spoke in opposition and the Planning Commission denied the CUP on the grounds that “(1) the proposal ‘is not consistent with the character of the immediate vicinity;’ (2) the proposal is ‘inconsistent’ with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which requires future institutional uses, like churches, to be located outside of low-density residential areas; and (3) changing the designation of the children’s play area to a public park means the proposed building would exceed the maximum of 35% lot coverage for property zones RS-1.”

The Church brought a five-count RLUIPA suit against the City. It alleges that the City’s CUP denial substantially burdens its religious exercise because “The Church wishes to build a facility on what it claims is the only available property to ideally fit its needs, and the City’s denial of its application for a CUP means the Church cannot do so.” Instead, the Church “is left with its rolling, six-month lease on the Beaches Museum Chapel, a less than ideal location, with no guarantee the lease will continue to be renewed.” The Church also claims that the City’s zoning ordinance violated RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision on its face by treating religious uses worse than secular assembly uses. In support of this argument, the Church points to “public and private parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities” uses that are allowed as-of-right in the subject zoning district, while religious institutions must obtain a CUP through discretionary review to locate there. It also alleges that City violated RLUIPA’s equal-terms and nondiscrimination provisions as-applied by treating it worse than other secular and religious uses that obtained zoning approval to locate in the zone. Finally, the Church argues that the City has violated RLUIPA’s unreasonable limitations provision by adopting policies that make it difficult for religious institutions to locate anywhere in the City.

On July 18, 2014, the District Court denied the City’s motion to dismiss the Church’s claims, concluding that the claims were properly pled to proceed to trial. The District Court has agreed to expedite the case for trial – scheduled to occur on September 2, 2014.

Daniel P. Dalton, an experienced RLUIPA litigator who represents the Church, offered the following comment:

“The law ensures that a city’s zoning restrictions don’t single out ministries for discrimination and penalize them because of their religious viewpoint. The city should do the right thing and grant Church of Our Savior a permit to build its church so it can fulfill its mission and continue to serve its community.”

Attorney Dalton is described by Bram Alden in his article “Reconsidering RLUIPA: Do Religious Land Use Protections Really Benefit Religious Land Users?” as “a leading RLUIPA proponent who has represented religious plaintiffs in a number of prominent RLUIPA cases,” including the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in its lawsuit against the City of San Diego (read more here).

The District Court’s decision denying the City’s motion to dismiss in Church of Our Savior v City of Jacksonville Beach, 2014 WL 35897494 (MD FLA 7/18/2014)

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