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The Latest on the Church of Our Savior Case

Written by Lawrence Opalewski on February 9, 2015 Category: RLUIPA

As noted in the RLUIPA defense blog, late last year, a federal court in Florida issued a decision in favor of our client, the Church of Our Savior, which wished to build a place of worship on Beach Boulevard (“Property”) in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. You can review the full story of the Church and the Property in our post here. In Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville, (M.D. FL 2014), we successfully argued that the City violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision (as applied).

The district court agreed with our argument that one of the two schools we presented as equal terms comparators was sufficiently similar to demonstrate that the City had implemented a “land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1).

The court found that Discovery Montessori School was a similarly situated, equal terms comparator because: (1) both uses were similarly small and relatively low-impact; (2) the surrounding properties were not strictly low-density, single family homes; and (3) both applicants faced objections by neighbors and questions from Department members regarding “traffic, fit with the neighborhood, and the impact on property values.” The City also failed to establish a compelling interest that was narrowly tailored to justify the “unequal” treatment.

The court’s decision noted its intention to order the City to grant the Church a conditional use permit. However, the court requested that the parties meet and discuss what “reasonable” conditions might be appropriate. As part of the court’s order, it encouraged “the parties to take this opportunity to discuss settlement of the entire case without further court involvement.” The court also explained that it would hear requests for attorney’s fees or costs at a later date, if not resolved by the parties. You can read our full post about the court’s opinion here.

In January, the court ordered that the parties enter mediation with a previously appointed mediator. On February 2, the mediator reported that the parties’ discussions had “reached an impasse” regarding the establishment of reasonable permit conditions and other matters—including attorneys’ fees. A status conference with the court is scheduled for tomorrow, February 10.

Meanwhile, the City has now appealed the court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. While the City has resisted settlement talks due mainly to objections over the payment of fees, fees are now likely to grow significantly as a result of the City’s appeal. We remain confident that the court’s well-reasoned decision will stand on appeal. Stay tuned to this site for future updates on this case.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC continue to provide counsel and litigation services to religious institutions around the country. As the country’s premiere RLUIPA litigation firm, we have experience with many different churches and faiths. If you feel that the rights of you or your organization are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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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.