Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 14, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in IL Dismisses RLUIPA Religious Exercise and Equal Terms Claims over Zoning Ordinance that Prohibited Churches from Manufacturing and Industrial Business District was Discriminatory

Plaintiff Truth Foundation Ministries, NFP (“TFM”) was a small church that conducted worship services on Sunday in a property located in the M-R (Light Manufacturing Research Park) District of the Village of Romeoville. After executing the Lease with W.B. Romeoville Corp., TFM expended over $50,000 to build out the church, including adding a second bathroom at the Village’s direction, and adding a sanctuary. TFM was given six months to vacate and relocate; however, although TFM and its real estate agent, Andrew Polivka, looked for alternative properties in the Village, could not find a suitable property that TFM could operate as a church under the Zoning Code. TFM argued that the Village, through its Zoning Code, completely excludes small churches from its jurisdiction and unreasonably restricts small churches within its districts in violation of RLUIPA. In this case, TFM filed its motion for injunctive relief before engaging in any discovery, seeking to enjoin the Village from engaging in activities that would not allow TFM to continue operating its church at its present location.

TFM first argued that the Village’s Zoning Code violated RLUIPA’s prohibition of unreasonably and completely excluding religious exercise. Here, TFM did not provide evidence regarding the availability of land for churches in general, but rather presented evidence regarding the unique limitations TFM faces as a small church. Additionally, TFM failed to provide the Court with evidence, regarding the general availability of land in the Village for churches, without specific consideration of a smaller church or a church with a property budget like TFM’s budget. Thus, TFM’s evidence was insufficient to determine whether the Village’s Zoning Code is “reasonable”. As to the as-applied challenge, although the Village ultimately denied this property as a potential location for TFM, it shows that a cost of $750,000 to well over a million dollars, while more than what TFM’s budget allows, was not a differential that was unreasonable under RLUIPA.

Next, TFM claimed that the Village’s Zoning Code violated RLUIPA’s prohibition of treating religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms as nonreligious assemblies and institutions, and that such treatment made it impossible for TFM to relocate within the Village. However, the Village presented uncontested evidence that in its twenty-four Districts, churches were only prohibited in 36.3% of the Village. The remaining Districts that allowed churches do so as a “Special Use” and comprised 51.6% of the Village. Accordingly, TFM failed to show a reasonable likelihood of success on a facial or as applied challenge that the Zoning Code completely and totally excluded churches—even small churches—from its Districts in violation of Section 2000cc(b)(3)(A).

Lastly, TFM argued that the Code violated RLUIPA’s prohibition of treating religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms than nonreligious assemblies and institutions. However, the court noted that the mere listing of a museum or art gallery as a permitted use in “public, quasi-public, and governmental buildings and facilities”—without more—did not establish that the Zoning Code’s M-R District violated the equal terms provision of RLUIPA. Here, the Village Planner testified that her interpretation of the allowance of museums and art galleries would be for artisan work spaces and small associated galleries up the front office, and contain works generated from within a manufacturing business located within the M-R District. Since TFM did not present evidence to challenge this testimony, the court found that TFM failed to established a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits on this, or any of the asserted federal claims on which it based its motion that the Village violated the RLUIPA.

Truth Foundation Ministries v Village of Romeoville, 2016 WL 757982 (ND IL 2/26/2016)

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