Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 24, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in AL Holds Pastor Plausibly Alleged that Statute Imposed a Substantial Burden on His Exercise of Religion in Violation of RLUIPA over Transitional Housing for Alleged Sex Offenders

Plaintiff Ricky Martin, the pastor of Triumph Church in Clanton, Alabama, ran a Christian ministry through which he offered transitional housing to registered sex offenders who were recently released from incarceration. Martin brought action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the county district attorney, alleging that the Alabama statute prohibiting registered sex offenders in the county from establishing residency in same home or on same property violated his rights under Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), First Amendment, and Due Process Clause, and was an unlawful bill of attainder. The District Attorney moved to dismiss the RLUIPA claim.

At the outset, the court noted that there was subject matter jurisdiction under RLUIPA’s “individualized assessments” jurisdictional prerequisite, which was met through Martin’s argument that the substantial burden on his free exercise of religion arose from the government’s procedures for making individualized assessments of proposed property use. In making this finding, the court first found that the Act constituted a land use regulation, since rather than imposing in personam restrictions on adult sex offenders themselves, the legislature opted to limit the acceptable uses of property within the Chilton County zone. Additionally, Martin alleged that Houston, the county district attorney, applied the Act to prevent him from maintaining his settlement operations in the future, as Houston later ordered Martin to evict all settlement residents or face enforcement action, which would include a fine. Thus, Martin’s complaint also plausibly supported the finding that the Act was a land use regulation under which the government made individualized assessments of the use of land. Moreover, the nature of Houston’s enforcement notice made it clear that he understood that Martin intended to continue his settlement ministry for an indefinite future period; this act supported the finding that the Act allowed Houston to make an individualized assessment of the proposed use of Martin’s property.

In analyzing whether Martin adequately pleaded a RLUIPA claim, the court found that the allegations were sufficient to support the finding that the Act constituted a land use regulation, because it divided the state of Alabama into districts and prescribed permissible uses of land within those districts. The Act imposed a substantial burden on Martin’s free exercise of religion, because it applied sufficient pressure on Martin such that it coerced him to cease his settlement ministry, which he maintained in furtherance of his religious beliefs. Accordingly, the court found that Martin had adequately pleaded a RLUIPA claim.

Martin v. Houston, 2016 WL 4010026 (MD AL 7/25/2016)

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