RLUIPA Religious Land Use Case: Summit Church – Elkins, West Virginia
SCENARIO: Summit Church (“the Church”) of Elkins, West Virginia, sued the Randolph County Development Authority (“RCDA”) alleging that the RCDA’s imposed ban of churches on the former CSX railyard constituted a violation of the Church’s right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Equal Terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 USC 2000cc, et seq.
The RCDA purchased the former CSX railyard in 1997 for the purpose of developing the area. The RCDA then resold the property to various buyers in individual parcels subject to the Building Covenants and Standards for the Elkins Railyard (“the Covenants”). The Covenants were established for the express purpose of redeveloping the former railyard “as a commercial mixed-use district that reflects the history and culture of the site.” The Covenants further restricted use of the former railyard to “commercial businesses, public and private offices, residential developments with certain restrictions, common areas (e.g. Town Square), and recreational purposes only.” Notably, churches and other religious assemblies were not listed as a permitted or prohibited use.
In 2012, due to a lack of space at its previous location, the Church began to hold services at the American Mountain Theater (“the Property”), which was then owned and operated by Kenny and Beverly Sexton (“the Sextons”). In August 2015, the Church and the Sextons began to discuss a sale of the Property to the Church. It was later agreed upon that the Church would purchase the Property from the Sextons and then lease the space back to the theater for a period of five years. Under this agreement, use of the property would remain unchanged from the present use: Church activities would take place on Sundays, and the theater would continue to hold performances on the Property.
That October, the RCDA held a meeting to discuss the proposed sale of the Property to the Church. At this meeting, it was determined that a church was not an acceptable land use of the former railyard. The RCDA contended that the proposed sale would violate the Covenants, but failed to consider that the express purpose of the Covenants was to regulate the use of property rather than the ownership.
RESOLUTION: The Church and theater retained Dalton & Tomich PLC who filed suit against the RCDA alleging violation of the Equal Terms provision of RLUIPA. In determining whether the RCDA had violated this provision, the court had to consider whether the Church was treated on less than equal terms with a nonreligious denomination and what constitutes a proper comparator. Ultimately the court held that a regulation will violate the Equal Terms provision only if it treats religious assemblies or institutions less well then secular assemblies or institutions that are similarly situated as to the government’s regulatory purpose. Because the RCDA failed to show how the current secular use of the CSX railyard furthered the objectives of the Covenants in a more significant way than the use proposed by the Church, the court determined that the Church was being treated on less than equal terms, and therefore could prevail on their Equal Terms challenge.
The parties then met for mediation and resolved all claims, including a substantive due process claim asserted by the owners of the Theater, for a confidential amount. The case is now closed with the Church owning the building and the theater leasing it from them for the Branson, Missouri type shows.
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.
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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