Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 29, 2017

Fed. Dist. Court on MN Finds City Violated Church’s Constitutional Rights

Plaintiff Riverside Church was a Christian Missionary & Alliance church that met for collective worship at a church building in Big Lake, Minnesota. Riverside first opened its video-café venue in 2005, which operated like a movie theater: providing elevated seating to allow the congregants to clearly see the services being projected on movie screens. This case arose from the City of St. Michael enforcing its zoning ordinances to thwart the church’s attempts to purchase a movie theater to serve as a second video-café venue for religious worship. Specifically, the Planning Commission recommended that the City not grant Riverside’s application, and rather than adopt the Recommendation or permit Riverside’s proposed use, the City Council passed Ordinance 1405, which adopted a moratorium of new assembly uses. At the same time, St. Michael adopted Ordinance 1406, which amended the Zoning Ordinance by removing “Theaters (not outdoor drive-ins)” as a permitted use from the B-1 and B-2 zoning districts.

After the August 2014 purchase agreement fell through, St. Michael published a “Statement Regarding Decision on Riverside Church Zoning Application” (the “Web Statement”) on the City’s website. The Web Statement asserted, among other things, that Riverside would not agree to an enforceable worship space limit. Even though the court found the Web Statement was in fact false, but also concludes that, based on the record before it, the statement did not lower the reputation or image of Riverside in any way in the estimation of the community. The defamation claim was therefore dismissed.

As to Riverside’s First Amendment claim the court first noted that the Zoning Ordinance addressed significant government interests related to protecting the community’s economic well-being and safety related to traffic control. The court found that St. Michael’s Ordinance prohibiting collective religious worship in the City’s B-1 zoning district until 2015 was not narrowly tailored. In support of this finding, the court looked to the City’s 2015 Study, which recommended treating assemblies for religious worship exactly the same as theaters – a direct contradiction to the City’s Findings in November 2014. Accordingly, the court held the City violated Riversides’ First Amendment constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly by enforcing the Zoning Ordinance. As a result of this violation Riverside lost the opportunity to purchase the Theater Property in November 2014 for $2,273,000.

The court next noted that the measure of damages for the tortious interference with a prospective contract is the pecuniary harm caused by the interference. Here, the City’s wrongful conduct increased the costs of the building by $2,758,054.95. Because the increase was due in part to Cinemasota’s efforts to prepare the Theater Property in case Riverside failed to purchase it, these costs of the improvement were subtracted out from the damage calculation. Riverside’s damages were therefore are $1,285,575.

Riverside Church v City of St. Michael, 2017 WL 2226553 (D. MN 5/22/2017)

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