Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 30, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in MI Grants Summary Judgment in Favor of Township in RLUIPA Case Finding No Substantial Burden on the Exercise of Religious Beliefs

The Nazarene Church property, located in the Township’s suburban residential zoning district, sought several special use permits between 1991 and 2013 to expand its ability to conduct its services. All of these special use permit applications were approved by the Township. However, over the years, homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods complained about the Church’s existing activities, which created noise, littering, and safety issues. Plaintiff Livingston Christian Schools (LCS) sought to relocate from Pinckney, Michigan to the Church’s building to operate a Christian school, and entered into a five-year lease agreement with the Church beginning June 1, 2015. The Township learned about LCS’s anticipated relocation to the Church property beginning in the 2015-2016 school year and advised the Church that it would need to apply for a special use permit to allow LCS to operate a school on the Church property, which it did.

In this case, LCS alleges that the Township violated RLUIPA by denying the Brighton Church of the Nazarene’s special use permit that would have allowed LCS to relocate to property owned by the Church. Specifically, LCS argued that the Township’s decision denying the Church’s amended special use permit imposed a substantial burden on LCS’s religious exercise and the religious exercise of its students. The court found that when the Township denied the Church’s permit application, LCS had not yet leased its Pinckney property, and therefore could have used that location as an alternate to the Church property. Additionally, LCS has operated for 2015-16 school year at the Whitmore Lake location. Thus, “nothing the Township has done requires LCS to violate or modify or forego its religious beliefs or precepts, or to choose between those beliefs and a benefit to which LCS was entitled. Because there was no indication that LCS was being prevented from exercising its religious beliefs, there was no substantial burden here.

LCS next alleged that the Township violated its constitutional right under the First Amendment to freely exercise its religious beliefs. Specifically, LCS claimed that the Township did not apply the ordinance neutrally, since the Township allowed a driver licensing program to operate on the Church property without the proper permit for over a decade. However, the denial at issue was the first time the Church was denied a special use permit, and the Township’s history of granting special use permits for religious uses casted doubt on LCS’s contention that the Township was motivated by a discriminatory intent.

Lastly, LCS claimed that the Township violated its Fourteenth Amendment right to Substantive Due Process by arbitrarily and capriciously denying it a protected property right when the Township denied the requested special use permit. According to LCS, Section 19.02 mandates that if the Planning Commission recommends approval because the ordinance is satisfied, then the Township “shall” approve the special use permit and “may impose reasonable conditions with the approval.” The court disagreed with this interpretation, however, finding that Section 19.02.04 established several actions the Township may take once it received the Planning Commission’s recommendation, including a “Denial of Special Land Use and Site/Sketch Plan Application.” Because the Township had discretion to deny LCS’s special use permit, LCS does not have a protected property interest. Accordingly, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

Livingston Christian Schools v Genoa Charter Township, 2016 WL 3549337 (ED MI 6/30/2016)

 


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