Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 16, 2016

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Chapel Failed to Show a Substantial Burden on Its Religious Exercise within the Meaning of RLUIPA

Mesquite Grove Chapel and Debi Fazio appealed the district court’s determination on summary judgment that Pima County Chief Zoning Inspector Carmine DeBonis, Jr. did not substantially burden Mesquite’s religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). After Mesquite applied for permits to develop land zoned for church use, the Inspector determined that Mesquite’s proposed use did not meet the Pima County zoning code’s definition of “church.” The Pima County Board of Adjustment affirmed. Mesquite brought this action in Arizona Superior Court and the Defendants removed the case to federal court. The district court granted summary judgment to the Defendants on all claims, holding the Inspector had absolute immunity and that there was insufficient evidence to find a substantial burden under RLUIPA. In response to Mesquite’s Rule 59 motion for a new trial, the district court reversed its absolute immunity determination, but affirmed its prior RLUIPA decision. On appeal, Mesquite challenged the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Inspector on the RLUIPA claim.

The court found that although the Inspector’s decisions were reviewable on administrative and judicial appeal, and land use decisions can be contentious, proceedings before the Inspector are not adversarial and therefore lack procedural protections. Moreover, the Inspector failed to show that he was bound to render a decision rather than advice on compliance; thus, his role was more executive than judicial. However, even though the Inspector was not entitled to absolute immunity, Mesquite failed to show a substantial burden on its religious exercise under RLUIPA. The court determined that the burdens of relocating or submitting a modified application were not substantial, especially because Mesquite presented no evidence that other sites were unsuitable. Accordingly, the holding of the district court was affirmed.

Mesquite Grove Chapel v DeBonis, 2015 WL 9258956 (9th Cir. CA 12/18/2015)

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