Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 5, 2017

Fed. Dist Court in VA Finds Facts Sufficient to Support Substantial Burden and Nondiscrimination RLUIPA Claims

The Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC) wanted to build a mosque in the County of Culpeper. Local health authorities told the ICC its building site would not support normal septic methods, so it needed a special permit from Culpeper County. Historically, such permits were granted as a matter of course, with little scrutiny. Officials even called the matter “routine” and stated publicly that the ICC’s application satisfied state law and the County’s protocols. Here, however, despite the County Administrator’s conclusion that the ICC’s application met state and local requirements, and the fact that the County granted every similar application over the last quarter-century, the County’s Board of Supervisors denied the permit. Based on these allegations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed this lawsuit against the County for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

The County first argued this case was not ripe because the Board did not reach a final decision on the permit application. The court rejected this argument, finding a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the denial was not based on an insufficient application or other good-faith reasons, but rather on anti-Muslim prejudice that would not go abate from ICC resubmitting a new application. Here, the record supported the inference that a locality disingenuously used its procedures “to obstruct and ultimately deny” the congregation’s building. Accordingly, the court declined to insulate the County from liability with regard to its decisions on zoning issues “simply because it decided them under the rubric of an ostensibly non-zoning process.” Accordingly, the court held that this case involved a “Zoning Law” or application thereof under RLUIPA and was ripe for review.
The court next determined that the complaint demonstrated a substantial burden on the ICC’s religious exercise in its allegations that the ICC members could not construct a mosque and adequately practice their religious beliefs due to the permit denial. While the County argued that the ICC had other options available, such as resubmitting an application, looking at “alternative septic systems,” and trying to obtain a pump-and-haul permit directly from the State, these actions were all substantially burdensome, especially when compared to the traditional ease of obtaining a permit. Thus, the complaint construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff supported the conclusion that the ICC’s religion motivated the County’s permit denial. These allegations also constituted an inference of pretext that was sufficient to overcome the County’s facially-neutral reasons for the denial. Accordingly, the court held that the United States alleged facts sufficient to support its substantial burden and nondiscrimination RLUIPA claims against the County.
USA v County of Culpeper, VA, 2017 WL 1169767 (WD VA 3/29/2017)

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