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Written by Daniel P. Dalton on April 21, 2015 Category: Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA

Dalton & Tomich PLC's religious land use practice continues to grow and expand. We are currently representing two new clients: the Vineyard Church in South Hackensack, New Jersey and New Life Church and homeless shelter in St. Louis, Missouri.

North Jersey Vineyard Church v. South Hackensack, NJ

We are currently representing North Jersey Vineyard Church (Vineyard), a Christian church based in Bergen County, New Jersey. Vineyard was founded in 1997, and since 2005 has worshipped in a converted office space that can house around 260 people. At the time Vineyard signed the lease for the office space, it had about 200 parishioners. It now has anywhere from 500 to 600 worshippers each weekend, and as a result has to host several services to accommodate its congregation.

One of Vineyard’s most valued religious tenets is to worship as one religious family and community. Given the capacity at its current worship space and the growing size of its congregation, it is logistically impossible for Vineyard’s congregation to worship together at its current space.

To remedy this issue, Vineyard’s leadership began searching for a new facility that could allow the entire congregation to worship together. In 2013, Vineyard learned of a long-vacant building that was large enough to accommodate the congregation (the Property). The Property is located in South Hackensack (the Township) and zoned M Mixed Use, which does not permit houses of worship.

Feeling called to the Property, Vineyard entered into a purchase agreement that was contingent upon obtaining the required use variance needed to use the building as a house of worship. Vineyard then submitted a use variance application to the Township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA). Numerous Township officials, including representatives from the police department, fire department, and planning department, determined Vineyard’s proposed use of the property would not have negative impacts on the surrounding area. Nonetheless, the ZBA ignored these opinions and instead unanimously denied the use variance application. Based on the Township’s decision, Vineyard is effectively barred from using the Property as a house of worship.

On December 17, 2014, with the assistance of Dalton & Tomich attorneys, Vineyard filed a federal lawsuit against the Township in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. In the lawsuit, Vineyard alleges that the Township’s denial of Vineyard’s use variance application violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Constitution, and the New Jersey Constitution. Litigation in this matter is ongoing, and we will be sure to provide updates as we go along. In the meantime, you can read more about this case in this recent blog post.

New Life Evangelistic Center v. St. Louis, Mo.

We are also representing New Life Evangelistic Center (New Life), an interdenominational Christian church located in St. Louis, Missouri. For nearly 40 years, New Life has operated a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis, at which it shelters up to 300 people a night. New Life and its members feel the Bible calls them to shelter, feed, clothe and care for the homeless and less fortunate members of society. In addition to its shelter facilities, New Life provides a variety of other services, including worship services, substance abuse group meetings, a free clothing store, and life skills training classes.

In the nearly 40 years that New Life has been at its current location, the area surrounding New Life’s building has significantly gentrified, with various businesses, bars, restaurants, and condos moving into the immediate vicinity. In 2013, many of these property owners signed a petition asking the City of St. Louis to declare New Life a “detriment to the neighborhood,” which would force New Life to either drastically reduce the number of homeless persons it shelters or risk having its entire homeless shelter shut down. After lengthy proceedings, the City sided with the petitioners, and in February of this year issued an order requiring New Life to reduce its occupancy to 32 persons or completely shutter its homeless shelter. The City’s decision is set to go into effect on May 12.

In response to this decision, Dalton & Tomich filed a federal lawsuit against St. Louis on New Life’s behalf in the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The lawsuit claims the City’s decision impermissibly interferes with New Life’s religious exercise, in violation of RLUIPA, the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions, and the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). New Life simultaneously filed a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order asking the Court to bar the City from enforcing its decision. Upon receipt of the Motion, the City stipulated to the entry of a Temporary Restraining Order allowing New Life to remain open. A trial is set for September 2015 to resolve the remaining legal issues. You can read more about this case in this recent New York Times profile.

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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.