A federal court sided with a church that wants to build a bigger facility in Prince George County, Maryland (the “County”).
After purchasing four parcels, the church was confronted with a two-step development process.
The first step was to amend the County’s Water and Sewer Plan in order for public water and sewer service to be supplied to the new site. Although several public officials recommended approval, the County denied the church’s request after members of the community expressly opposed the new project during two public hearings.
After its request was denied, the church sued the County in federal court claiming that the denial violated federal law—the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—by substantially burdening its religious exercise.
In response, the County sought to dismiss the lawsuit by making two arguments: (1) The denial of the request to amend the plan is not a “land use regulation,” and (2) The County failed to show how the denial of its request amounted to a substantial burden under RLUIPA.
The court rejected both of the County’s arguments and therefore denied the County’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.
As to the County’s first argument, in a nutshell, the court held that the denial amounted to an individualized assessment of the proposed use for the new site which, in effect, limited the church’s use or development of land. Thus, the denial of the request to amend amounts to “land use regulation” under RLUIPA.
More importantly, the court found that the church made various allegations in its lawsuit that rise to the level of a substantial burden, for example:
(1) Being unable to build a bigger church to recruit more followers of Christ;
(2) Being unable to accommodate its growing congregation;
(3) Being unable to comfortably worship; and
(4) Being unable to cut on additional costs associated with its current facility, like hiring traffic control and renting additional space.
All these allegations fall within the scope of RLUIPA’s substantial burden clause, according to the court.
Well, the church’s lawsuit survived the County’s attempt to dismiss the case, and will proceed through litigation.
When it comes to litigating religious land use cases, especially under RLUIPA, the value in both time and money of having an experienced attorney on your side cannot be overstated.
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns regarding your religious organization.
The content of this blog post, drafted by a law clerk, was reviewed and approved by a licensed attorney.
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.
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