Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 30, 2018

Fed. Dist Court of KS Adopts USDOJ’s Analysis on Substantial Burden and Allows Church’s RLUIPA Claim to Proceed to Trial

Editor’s Note: This excerpt appears in the USDOJ’s Religious Freedom in Focus newsletter available:

On August 30, a U.S. District Court in Kansas ruled that a Roman Catholic church had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on its claim that the City of Mission Woods violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when it denied the church a permit to expand.  The court adopted the two-step analysis for analyzing the substantial burden claim urged by the United States in a Statement of Interest filed with the court on May 24.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, protects places of worship and other religious uses of land from discriminatory or unduly burdensome application of land-user regulations.  On June 13, the Attorney General announced the Place to Worship Initiative, focused on expanding the Department’s RLUIPA enforcement efforts and increasing awareness of RLUIPA through community education outreach events around the country and dissemination of educational materials.  More information about the initiative is available on the initiative homepage.  Recent RLUIPA cases include the filing of a suit against a New Jersey town alleging that it interfered with the ability of an Orthodox Jewish group to build a synagogue, a brief supporting a Hindu association’s suit against Howard County, Maryland (see article below), and a brief supporting an African Christian church’s suit against Baltimore County, Maryland.

The Mission Woods, Kansas, case involves the efforts of Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church to convert a dilapidated house next to its church building for youth and adult education and meetings.  The property is in a zone that permits houses of worship as-of-right, subject to development standards such as density, parking, and landscaping and screening requirements. While the church presented evidence that it complied with all requirements, the city denied the permit, citing concerns about noise and traffic.  St. Rose filed suit under RLUIPA.

The United States’ Statement of Interest contended that a court analyzing a substantial burden claim should first look at whether there is an “actual, practical impact . . . on the institution’s religious exercise,” and if so, then determine whether that burden was caused by the Defendant, such as whether “the institution had a reasonable expectation of obtaining the approval, whether there are reasonable alternatives available to the institution, and whether pursuing alternatives would cause undue delay, uncertainty, and expense for the institution.”

The court agreed, holding that to establish that a land use regulation has imposed a substantial burden under RLUIPA, a plaintiff must show first that it has “a need to expand or relocate.”  Then, a plaintiff must show that the defendant inhibited the plaintiff’s ability to expand or relocate by such actions as denying plaintiff’s “reasonable expectation” of building or expanding at that location, that there are no reasonable alternatives, that the defendant imposed “economically infeasible or disingenuous” conditions, or that the defendant’s actions had created “delay, uncertainty or expense” for the ability of the plaintiff to relocate or expand.

The court held that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence of both a need to expand and that their attempts to do so were thwarted by the actions of the defendant.  The court also held that the church had presented sufficient evidence that the defendant did not have a compelling reason for its actions.  It thus denied summary judgment to the defendant and allowed the substantial burden claim to proceed.  The court also allowed the church’s claim that it was treated less favorably than nonreligious assemblies under RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1) to proceed, along with other federal and state law claims, and granted judgment for the Defendant on a RLUIPA Section 2(b)(3) claim that the city had imposed a unreasonable limitation on building churches in the city as a general matter.  The United States’ brief addressed only the substantial burden issue.


Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas v. City of Mission Woods, 2018 WL 4154034(D. KS 8/30/2018)

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