Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 19, 2019

TN Court of Appeals Upholds Reasonable Accommodation to Church Pursuant to RLUIPA

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Glencliff United Methodist Church (“GUMC”) sought to use a part of its property to construct a project called “The Glencliff Urban Village,” which would consist of 22 “micro-homes” for homeless persons; 19 of the homes would be 200 square feet each and 3 would be 400 square feet. In 2016, the Church’s senior pastor and its head trustee sent a letter to the Metro Zoning Administrator requesting a “reasonable accommodation” pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) to use the property in that manner. This accommodation would have relieved the project from complying with the regular requirements for property zoned RS 10.

The Zoning Administrator of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (“Metro”) granted the Church’s request for an accommodation, pursuant to RLUIPA and the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”). Mike Freeman, a member of the Metropolitan Council, appealed the Planning Administrator’s decision to the Metropolitan Board of Zoning Appeals. A lease between the Church and Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit agency that provided outreach services to the homeless and rented office space from the Church, was entered into the record at that hearing. The Board of Zoning Appeals voted to uphold the Zoning Administrator’s grant of an accommodation to the Church. In 2017, Dayle Ward and fourteen other individuals residing near the Church, whose counsel had participated in that hearing before the Board by expressing their opposition to the grant of the accommodation, filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Davidson County Chancery Court. The Chancellor held the Board did not exceed its jurisdiction and affirmed the decision.

On appeal, Petitioners claimed that, since Open Table was an “interfaith” organization and the record did not show that Open Table exercised religion by providing services to the homeless, the church could not “transfer” its religious exercise to a third-party tenant – such as Open Table. The court found that the lease arrangement between Open Table and GUMC did not negate the protection that TRFRA provided to GUMC. The record reflected that the project was undertaken due to a religiously motivated desire to help the homeless, which was a cause that was recognized by the church as part of its core mission. Accordingly, the court found it was appropriate for GUMC to apply for and receive the accommodation allowed by the statutes.

Petitioners next contended that no alleged burden in this case had been shown to be “substantial,” in violation of both RLUIPA and TRFRA. Here, petitioners failed to cite any evidence indicating that the project could be constructed at another church-owned site or that there was a least restrictive alternative. Conversely, requiring the project to comply with the RS 10 zoning regulations would delay the project, and thus delay the response to the urgent need for housing for the homeless. Additionally, any required additional improvements would add to the church’s cost. As such, the record supported the determination that requiring this project to comply with the RS 10 zoning regulations would constitute a substantial burden on the church’s exercise of religion under RLUIPA. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the Chancellor.

Ward v Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 2019 WL 1753053 (TN App. 4/17/2019)

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