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RLUIPA Religious Land Use Case: Lighthouse Rescue Mission – Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on December 10, 2015 Category: RLUIPA Cases
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The federal court in Hattiesburg, Mississippi has approved a settlement agreement that requires the City of Hattiesburg to allow Lighthouse Rescue Mission (Lighthouse) to operate a Christian-based residential addiction treatment facility in a former school facility in Hattiesburg. Under the terms of the settlement, Hattiesburg must also pay Lighthouse $15,000 in damages and pay Dalton & Tomich’s attorney fees incurred in litigating this matter.

Lighthouse is a non-profit Christian ministry located in Hattiesburg that provides religious services, long-term housing, and treatment for single mothers that are recovering from addiction as well as their children. Lighthouse was formed in 2005, when its creator felt called to start the ministry after realizing there was a desperate need for such a ministry in the Hattiesburg community. That same year, using his own personal funds, Lighthouse’s founder purchased a former elementary school building in Hattiesburg and began to renovate the building to serve as a worship facility and overnight shelter for its ministry participants.

While the City of Hattiesburg allowed Lighthouse to use its facility for worship and addiction counseling, it refused to allow Lighthouse to provide overnight shelter for the women and children participating in the program. The City’s justification for this decision was because the school was located in a single-family residential zone. As a result of the City’s refusal to allow Lighthouse to provide overnight stay at the school facility, Lighthouse was forced to spend an additional $65,000 to buy a separate house that was adjacent to the school facility at which it could house some of the ministry participants.

Lighthouse applied to the City for a zoning change that would allow it to provide overnight stay at the school facility. However, both the Hattiesburg Planning Commission and City Council rejected Lighthouse’s request. Next, Lighthouse applied for a conditional use permit to use the facility for worship purposes and overnight stay. The City Council approved the permit with respect to offering worship services, but once again explicitly prohibited Lighthouse from providing overnight stay.

After eight years of unsuccessfully trying to work with the City to allow it to provide overnight stay at the school, Lighthouse’s only option was to file a federal lawsuit. In May 2013, with the assistance of Dalton & Tomich, Lighthouse filed its lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. In the lawsuit, Lighthouse challenged Hattiesburg’s zoning regulations as violative of RLUIPA, the federal Fair Housing Act, and the United States and Mississippi Constitutions.

With respect to RLUIPA, Lighthouse argued the City’s decisions imposed a substantial burden on Lighthouse’s religious exercise. Namely, by refusing to allow Lighthouse to provide overnight stay at the school facility, the City was essentially forcing Lighthouse to forego the most central tenet of its ministry, which is to provide a safe, stable living environment for low income women in recovery from addiction and their children in order to allow the women to focus fully on their recovery and their families.

Lighthouse also argued the City’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. The Fair Housing Act protects individuals with handicaps, including those in recovery from addiction and participating in a drug or alcohol recovery program, from discrimination in housing. In this matter, the City specifically relied on discriminatory statements from neighbors claiming Lighthouse’s proposed facility would create safety issues, increase crime, and decrease property values in the area.

In November 2013, Lighthouse and the City reached a settlement agreement under which Hattiesburg agreed to provide Lighthouse with the exact relief it sought in its Complaint—the ability to provide long-term overnight housing to the single mothers and children that participate in its ministry program. Specifically, Hattiesburg agreed to provide Lighthouse with all building code and occupancy permits and use permits it needed to provide overnight stay at the facility. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Hattiesburg also agreed to pay $15,000 in damages to Lighthouse as well as Dalton & Tomich’s attorney fees incurred in litigating the matter.

Today, Lighthouse Rescue Mission is fully operational and providing a safe, stable living environment for periods of up to nine months to mothers in recovery from addiction and their children in the Hattiesburg community. Lighthouse also continues to provide Christian-based spiritual guidance, a variety of classes including GED, parenting, and money management, as well as counseling opportunities to its participants.

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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.