Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 25, 2021

4th Cir. Ct. App. Affirms Finding of RLUIPA Violation on Appeal

This post was authored by Sebastian Perez, Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center

The defendant Prince George’s County, Maryland (the “County”) by way of its county council (the “Council”) appealed the district court’s award for declaratory and injunctive relief in favor of plaintiff The Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) Bowie, Maryland (“Victory Temple”) following a bench trial relating to a denied request to amend a water and sewer plan. In February 2018, Victory Temple purchased a property intending to construct a church facility able to accommodate its growing congregation (the “Property”).

Victory Temple had a feasibility study performed which revealed the Property was in the County’s water and sewer category 5 but needed to be upgraded to a category 4 by legislative amendment before developing the land. On November 27, 2018, Victory Temple applied to the County for a water and sewer category change from category 5 to category 4 (the “Application”). The County’s handling of the Application underlies the dispute in this litigation. On May 7, 2019, after receiving a recommendation to deny the application from the Transportation Committee, the Council adopted the recommendation and denied the application. This litigation stems from that denial.

On November 22, 2019, Victory Temple filed its complaint against the County alleging that the denial of the Application violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. Victory Temple ought declaratory and injunctive relief. The district court denied the County’s FRCP 12(b)(6) motion on February 6, 2020. A bench trial was conducted virtually from June 23 to June 25, 2020. On September 9, 2020, the district court filed its verdict and declared that the County had violated RLUIPA by denying the Application.

In ruling that RLUIPA applied, the district court focused on the definitions in RLUIPA and concluded that “there was no question that water and sewer category change requests occurred parcel by parcel” which permitted the County to make “individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved.” The district court then determined that the County’s denial of the Application constituted a substantial burden because Victory Temple could not build the church it needed while the Property remained in Category 5. The court reviewed the County’s denial of the Application under the RLUIPA-mandated strict scrutiny standard of review. Applying that standard, the court concluded that the County had failed to show that its denial of the Application constituted the least restrictive means to achieving a compelling government interest. The district court permanently enjoined the County from denying the Application and ordered the County to amend its Water and Sewer Plan and advance the Property to water and sewer category 4. On October 16, 2020, the County filed its notice of appeal, seeking relief from the injunction.

The threshold question on appeal was whether RLUIPA applied to the legislative amendment to the County’s Water and Sewer Plan sought by Victory Temple. The court’s analysis started by

deciding whether the legislative amendment to the County’s Water and Sewer Plan sought by Victory Temple satisfies two requirements. First, the court asked whether, in denying the Application, the County made “individualized assessments of the proposal uses for the property involved. Second, the court asked whether the requested legislative amendment constitutes a land use regulation.

On the first inquiry, the court relied on Guru Nanak Sikh Soc. of Yuba City v Cnty. Of Sutter, 456 F.3d 978, 986 (9th Cir. 2006) to find that the County’s denial of the Application resulted from a “parcel-by-parcel” evaluation and constituted an individualized assessment of Victory Temple’s proposed use of the Property. On the second inquiry, the court analyzed the meaning of the term “zoning” to ultimately determine that the County’s individualized assessment of Victory Temple’s proposed use of the Property was in fact made pursuant to a land use regulation. The court next turned to the question of whether the County’s denial of Victory Temple’s Application contravened RLUIPA’s substantial burden test. The court’s analysis of the substantial burden test focused on whether the land use regulation satisfied strict scrutiny review. The County’s alleged government interest in “traffic safety” was assumed to constitute a compelling governmental interest. However, the court determined there was a less restrictive means available to the County when it considered and denied the Application. Traffic was supposed to be addressed at the preliminary plan of the subdivision phase, which could only occur after a property is upgraded to water and sewer category 4.

Therefore, allowing Victory Temple to be upgraded to category 4 and address traffic concerns during the subdivision phase was a less restrictive means of furthering the County’s interest in traffic safety. The court found that the County’s denial of the Application failed RLUIPA’s strict scrutiny test and affirmed the injunction issued by the district court.      

Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) Bowie v. Prince George’s Cty., 2021 U.S. App. (4th Cir. Nov. 3, 2021)


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