Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 23, 2015

Fed. Dist. Court of PA Grants Church’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction on RLUIPA Equal Terms Claim

Hope Rising Community Church located in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, is a church organized by Pastor Harry Hoff in 2013. In August 2014, the Church signed a three-year lease to use a warehouse building, but it is disputed whether Pastor Hoff received permission from the Penn Hills Department of Planning and Economic Development to hold Sunday worship services at the Property before entering into the lease. After the lease was signed, the Church spent over $7,000.00 on renovations to the Property; its members donated approximately $10,000.00 of materials and equipment and donated over 400 hours of labor to complete the renovations. The Property owner, Robert Verona, was granted an Occupancy Permit on behalf of the Church to the City to permit the Church to occupy the property. Penn Hills building official (John McCafferty), Penn Hills code enforcement officer, (Catherine Zegarelli), Penn Hills fire marshal, (Charles Miller), and two others ordered Pastor Hoff to stop holding church services by March 1, 2015. The Church also received a violation notice that same day from the City demanding that “all church services and large group assemblies cease and desist by March 1, 2015.” The Church applied for a variance but was denied. In this case, the Church sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the City from denying the Plaintiff the use of the Property for religious assembly and worship.

The Church argued that it was entitled to a preliminary injunction on its two facial challenges to the Zoning Ordinance under the Equal Terms and Unreasonable Limitations provisions of RLUIPA. The Church first argued that the Zoning Ordinance facially violated RLUIPA by unreasonably restricting religious assembly by not allowing religious assembly in any zoning district as of right, only allowing religious assembly in residential districts as a conditional use, and the conditional use approval process itself was an unreasonable limitation. The court found that limiting churches to a conditional use in residential districts did not unreasonably limit religious assembly because this restriction did not foreclose the Church’s right to assemble. Accordingly, it held that the Church was unlikely to succeed on the merits of its Unreasonable Limitations claim under RLUIPA, and recommended that the Church’s motion for preliminary injunction on this claim be denied.

The Church next argued that it was entitled to preliminary injunctive relief on its Equal Terms claim under RLUIPA because the Zoning Ordinance did not allow churches as a permitted use in the Light Industrial Zone, but allowed parks, playgrounds and educational institutions in that zone as a permitted use. Here, parks and playgrounds could be interpreted as “assemblies” since they were comprised of a company of persons gathered together for entertainment. Moreover, the City failed to show how a religious institution would cause greater harm to the Light Industrial District and its objectives than parks, playgrounds and educational institutions. Finally, the court determined that the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constituted irreparable injury. For the aforementioned reasons, the Court held that the Church was likely to succeed on the merits of its RLUIPA Equal Terms claim.

Hope Rising Community Church v Municipality of Penn Hills, 2015 WL 7720380 (WD PA 10/28/2015)

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