Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 19, 2018

Fed. Dist Court in HI Denies Summary Judgment in RLUIPA Claims Arising from Special Use Permit to Build a Church

This post was authored by Matthew-Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiff Fredrick R. Honig bought land on Maui zoned for agricultural use that he leased to Plaintiff Spirit of Aloha Temple, which applied for a Special Use Permit to build a church and hold religious events on the land. After the requested Special Use Permit was denied, Plaintiffs filed this action, asserting religious discrimination.

In Count I, plaintiff asserted that the County of Maui’s imposition and implementation of land use regulations to deny a Special Use Permit for “church activities” amounted to a substantial burden on Honig’s and Spirit of Aloha Temple’s religious exercise, in violation of RLUIPA 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a). The record reflected that when Honig purchased the land in issue here in September 1994, he knew that it was zoned for agricultural and conservation use. After its initial Special Use Permit application was denied, Spirit of Aloha Temple entered into an agreement to lease the property from Honig. Thus, the court found that it knew or should have known that it might not get a Special Use Permit for the proposed temple. Conversely, Spirit of Aloha Temple may have reasonably believed that it would nevertheless receive the permit because it was amenable to any reasonable condition and it orally amended the permit application to have fewer events and to end most of those events during daylight hours. As such, there was a question of fact as to whether it was reasonable for Spirit of Aloha Temple to expect that it would get the Special Use Permit, or whether it created its own burden.

Next, plaintiff alleged in Count II a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2), which prohibited the imposition or implementation of “a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.” Count VII asserted a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Here, Maui Planning Commission granted a Special Use Permit to Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm to conduct tourism activities, including agricultural classes and workshops, to operate a gift shop, to conduct wedding ceremonies, and to have catered receptions and other special events. It also granted a Special Use Permit to Hale Akua Garden Farm Retreat Center for a well-being education operation with overnight accommodations. Interpreting the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court held that the County of Maui failed to show that the differences with these other businesses would preclude a reasonable jury from finding discrimination.

In Count V, plaintiff claimed that the County of Maui’s denial of the Special Use Permit to Spirit of Aloha Temple amounted to a prior restraint in violation of its First Amendment rights, actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, since the parties did not sufficiently address the state court administrative appeals process in their briefs, the court could not determine whether it should give the state court judgment preclusive effect as to Count V. Count VI asserted that the County of Maui deprived and was depriving Plaintiffs of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion. As with Count V, neither of the parties’ motions sufficiently discussed the res judicata or collateral estoppel doctrines in the context of the Free Exercise of Religion claim. Accordingly, the court denied the motions for summary judgment filed by both parties.

Spirit of Aloha Temple v County of Maui, 2018 WL 3520675 (D HI 7/20/2018)

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