Lighthouse Community Church of God (“Lighthouse”), a historic African American church that had been in existence for more than 80 years, was a small but faithful community of believers whose mission was to serve others. Its building, however, had become too small for Lighthouse’s ongoing work and after much deliberation, the congregation opted to seek a larger space. Their journey through the legal system and through the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) with help from Dalton & Tomich plc would result in the largest settlement proposal to date of any religious land use case in the nation.
In June 2003, they discovered that the two-story, 20,000-square-foot Rutland building in Southfield, Michigan was for sale. Built in 1965 as a commercial office building, it is located in a zoning district in which churches are a permissible use. In fact, the city had previously granted approval in 1996 to use the building as a church, and, both Evangelistic Holiness Church and AME Zion Church had used the building for worship services and outreach programs during the next eight years. According to a 2002 appraisal, the building had an additional 29-year life expectancy, plus a parking lot with 73 marked spaces and adjacent two-hour on-street parking. It was perfect for Lighthouse’s needs. In February 2004, Lighthouse presented a site plan to city officials which included 73 existing parking spaces. The city planner informed Pastor Booker that he had made a mistake encouraging Lighthouse to purchase the building, as the city was supporting the efforts of the owner and developer of an adjacent nine-acre parcel who wanted to develop the entire area — including Lighthouse’s property – as a $30 million gated residential community. The city planner suggested to Pastor Booker that he sell the property to the developer, but, if they wanted to pursue the certificate of occupancy, they must request a parking variance from the zoning board of appeals.
With no other viable options left for them, Lighthouse filed suit in federal district court alleging a cause of action under RLUIPA and related constitutional claims, then obtained an ex parte temporary restraining order. Following oral arguments on the summary judgment motions, the federal district court, concerned about whether Lighthouse had sufficiently exhausted its administrative remedies, directed the church to apply for a parking variance. Lighthouse did so immediately. Although the zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”) granted setback and landscaping variances to the church in October 2006, it denied the critical parking variance because it concluded that there would be “a negative impact on surrounding properties because [the variance] will result in overflow parking onto adjacent properties, street rights-of-way, and residential properties to the north.”
The court concluded the denial of the parking variance constituted an individualized assessment, thus satisfying RLUIPA’s jurisdictional hurdle. The court also found that Lighthouse had established a prima facie case of a RLUIPA violation because the ZBA’s denial of a parking variance precluded the church from using its building for worship purposes. Finally, when the city was unable to demonstrate a compelling government interest for keeping Lighthouse from using its building for worship, the court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the church.
Trial was scheduled in March 2007 on the issue of damages and injunctive relief under RLUIPA and liability and damages on the church’s equal protection, substantive due process and procedural due process claims. A day before trial, the City offered the largest settlement proposal at that time in any religious land use case in the nation. The Church accepted and the case ended.
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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