Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 12, 2019

4th Circuit Court of Appeals Rules that Baltimore Church’s RLUIPA Claim May Proceed

Editor’s Note: This summary was first published in the USDOJ’s February 2019 issue of Religious Freedom in Focus, available here:

On February 6, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a federal trial court and held that a small African Christian church’s suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) may proceed.  The United States filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals in the case, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland last July. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John M. Gore represented the United States at oral arguments in October, contending that the church had adequately alleged that the county discriminated against it and had imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise without proper justification.

The case involves the efforts of Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, a small congregation with many members who are African immigrants, to build a church on a 1.2-acre lot in Baltimore County.  The property’s zoning allows churches as of right, subject to setback and buffer requirements which a church must meet “to the extent possible.”  The church initially submitted a plan that fell far short of meeting the setback and buffer requirements, but submitted a second plan which largely met them.  The church plan was vigorously opposed by neighbors, and the county denied the church’s second application.

The church filed suit under RLUIPA, which protects places of worship and other religious uses of property from discriminatory or unjustifiably burdensome applications of land-use regulations.  The suit alleged that neighbors opposing the plan had made racially and ethnically charged statements about the worship style of the congregation including references to “dancing and hollering” as if they were “home back in Africa.”  The suit also alleged that the church had made reasonable proposals and modifications to its plan and that their religious exercise was “substantially burdened” in violation of RLUIPA by the denial.  A federal district court ruled that the claims were insufficient to make out a RLUIPA claim and dismissed the complaint.

The court of appeals agreed with the United States that both of the church’s claims should be permitted to proceed.

On the discrimination claim, the court agreed with the United States that while the statements of neighbors at a public hearing are not necessarily attributable to the government decision maker, these allegations, coupled with the allegation that the county was in fact influenced by these neighbors, is sufficient to state a claim of discrimination under RLUIPA.  The court also noted that while RLUIPA prohibits only religious discrimination and not ethnic or racial discrimination, the statements of the neighbors disparaging the congregants included both racial and religious elements, and the court would not try to disaggregate these on a motion to dismiss.

On the substantial burden claim, the court agreed with the United States that a court should evaluate both the actual ways the zoning action imposes a burden on the church (e.g., here completely foreclosing the property’s use as a church), and the degree to which the local government is causing that burden.  The United States argued that the plaintiffs had a reasonable expectation when they bought the property that they could use it for a church, that they had demonstrated its willingness to make modifications to address county concerns, and that they were treated arbitrarily by the county.

The court agreed, finding that the complete foreclosure of the use of the property resulting from the denial, the reasonable expectations of the church, and its willingness to modify its original plans, stated a claim of a substantial burden on religious exercise under RLUIPA.

In 2018, the Department launched the Place to Worship Initiative to increase awareness of RLUIPA’s requirements among local officials and communities and to increase enforcement. More information is available on the Place to Worship Initiative homepage and the website of the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, which enforces RLUIPA.

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