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A RLUIPA win: Hope Rising Community Church—Penn Hills, Pennsylvania

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on August 8, 2016 Category: RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases

Hope Rising Community Church (“Hope Rising” or “Church”) is a Christian congregation first organized in 2013. In June 2014, the Church signed a three-year lease for a warehouse in Penn Hills, PA to use for religious services and assembly. The warehouse was in Penn Hills’ “Light Industrial District.” Officials from the Penn Hills Planning and Code Enforcement Departments told Hope Rising representatives there was no issue using the warehouse as a house of worship. After these positive meetings with City officials, Hope Rising spent approximately $7,000 in renovations.

In September 2014, Penn Hills officials inspected the warehouse and issued Hope Rising an occupancy permit. However, four months later, Penn Hills officials abruptly ordered Hope Rising to cease holding worship services at the warehouse. In March 2015, Hope Rising applied for a variance to continue worshipping at the warehouse. The City denied the variance, claiming the Church misled it as to how it planned to use the structure. Thereafter, Hope Rising could use the warehouse for clothing distribution, counseling, as a food bank, and to host small meetings, but it was barred from conducting worship services. After Penn Hills forced Hope Rising to stop hosting worship services at the warehouse space, the Church was forced to meet in alternate locations that resulted in a more than 50% decrease in attendance.

In September 2015, Hope Rising retained the law firm of Dalton & Tomich PLC to file suit in the Western District of Pennsylvania arguing Penn Hills’ actions violated RLUIPA, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Pennsylvania Religious Protection Act. Soon thereafter, we moved for a preliminary injunction, arguing it had a high likelihood of success on the merits of its facial Equal Terms and Unreasonable Limitations claims brought under RLUIPA.

For its Equal Terms claim, Hope Rising argued the Penn Hills Zoning Ordinance facially violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms clause because it did not permit religious assemblies as of right in any of the City’s zoning districts, and were allowed as a conditional use only in the residential district. By contrast, many of the districts that outright banned religious assemblies allowed many secular assemblies, including lodges, clubs, meeting halls, educational institutions, parks and playgrounds. Hope Rising also contended Penn Hills’ conduct violated RLUIPA’s Unreasonable Limitations provision because there was no property available in Penn Hill’s residential zones, the only zones where places of worship are conditionally allowed.

The testimony of witnesses and oral argument was taken under advisement by the Magistrate Judge, who, in November 2015 issued a decision recommending that Hope Rising’s preliminary injunction be issued. The Magistrate Judge determined the Church was likely to succeed on the merits of its facial Equal Terms claim. Citing the Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch decision, the Court noted the relevant Third Circuit standard to address an Equal Terms challenge is whether a zoning provision “treats religious assemblies or institutions less well than secular assemblies or institutions that are similarly situated as to the regulatory purpose.” The Court agreed with Hope Rising’s position that parks, playgrounds and educational institutions are “assemblies” and “institutions” for purposes of an Equal Terms analysis under RLUIPA. The Court further agreed the City had not shown how a religious institution would cause greater harm in the Light Industrial District than parks, playgrounds and educational institutions.

Penn Hills then appealed the Magistrate Judge’s decision to the District Judge. The District Judge rejected the City’s appeal, instead entering the preliminary injunction. Under the terms of the injunction, Hope Rising was allowed to use the warehouse for religious assembly and worship pending resolution of the lawsuit.

In February 2016, shortly after the injunction issued, Penn Hills agreed to settle the lawsuit. Under the terms of the lawsuit, Penn Hills agreed to allow the Church to use the warehouse as a house of worship as well as pay monetary damages to Hope Rising as well as the Church’s attorney fees.

Dalton & Tomich PLC is pleased to partner with Hope Rising Church and looks forward to helping other religious uses in similar circumstances attain their land use goals.

Daniel P. Dalton is the author of the nation’s first definitive guide to the litigation of cases under RLUIPA. Now in its second edition, Litigating Religious Land Use Cases provides practical advice for religious entities and lawyers representing them in religious land use claims.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.