Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 24, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in TN Enjoins City from Enforcing Its Zoning Ordinance to Prevent Landowners from Operating “Temple of the Ancient Ones” on Their Property

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiffs Shari and Paul Yetto were the two of the founders of a non-profit religious organization known as the Temple of the Ancient Ones. Plaintiffs Shari and Paul Yetto filed this action against the City of Jackson, Tennessee, Mayor Jerry Gist, in his official capacity, and City Planner Elvis Hollis, in his official capacity, under the equal-terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Plaintiffs also sought a declaratory judgment ruling that the Zoning Ordinance at issue did not regulate the type of religious gatherings held by them in their home, and a permanent injunction prohibiting the enforcement of the Zoning Ordinance against them and their religious gatherings. The court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ §1983 claim on the ground that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations and denied both motions for summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim as there were disputed issues of material fact that precluded summary judgment.  The case was tried without a jury on February 28, 2019.

In this case, Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the RS-1 Zoning Ordinance did not apply to their small religious gatherings because these gatherings did not constitute a “church or similar place of worship” within the meaning of the Zoning Ordinance. The court found that no inquiry regarding the definition of this term was necessary since both Hollis and Pilant testified that the RS-1 Zoning Ordinance did not apply to small religious gatherings such as those held at Plaintiffs’ residence. As a result, the Yettos were not required to obtain a special-use exception in order to operate the Temple of the Ancient Ones on their property. The court therefore issued a permanent injunction enjoining Defendants and their agents from enforcing or threatening to enforce the RS-1 Zoning Ordinance against Shari and Paul Yetto for holding small religious gatherings in their home and on their private residential property.

Plaintiffs next contended that if the court found that Plaintiffs’ gatherings fell within the definition of “church or similar place of worship,” then this an interpretation would cause the Zoning Ordinance to violate RLUIPA by facially differentiating between religious and nonreligious assemblies or institutions. Since the court found that the gatherings did not fall within that definition, Plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the Zoning Ordinance failed. Finally, the court declined to determine if the comparators identified by Plaintiffs were proper because the as-applied claim was not ripe for judicial review as a decision was never made as to Plaintiff’s request for a special-use exception.

Yetto v City of Jackson, 2019 WL 2715545 (WD TN 6/28/2019)

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