Church Wins Free Speech Claim Over Zoning Ordinance and $1,354,595 in Damages

by Robinson+Cole RLUIPA Defense
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Last year, we reported about a case in which the city of St. Michael, Minnesota utilized RLUIPA’s “safe harbor” provision to avoid liability under the act’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions.  While the federal court found for the city as to Riverside Church’s RLUIPA claims at the summary judgment stage, the court concluded that there were genuine issues of fact regarding Riverside’s free speech claim that could only be resolved at trial.  Following a several-week-long trial, the court late last month issued its decision and found that the city’s zoning ordinance violated Riverside’s right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and awarded Riverside $1,354,595 in damages.

Riverside identified property in the city’s B-1 district as an ideal satellite location to accommodate its growing congregation.  Riverside would use the new location much like a movie theater, where it would broadcast religious worship services being held at its primary church in Big Lake, Minnesota.  The property was already suited for Riverside’s intended use, since it had previously been operated as a 15-screen movie theatre, with nearly 2,800 seats, a maximum capacity of over 3,600 people, and having more than 91,000 square feet.  Although Riverside sought to use the property in much the same way as a movie theatre – an allowed use under the zoning code for this B-1 district – the city concluded that the proposed use was not allowed since “collective religious worship” was not among the uses permitted in this district.

Riverside’s efforts to use the property were stymied by the city on several occasions.  In 2014, Riverside entered into a purchase and sale agreement for the property, contingent on zoning approval.  Riverside submitted an application to amend the text of the zoning regulations to allow religious uses in the B-1 district.  As the text amendment application was pending, the City Council imposed an across-the-board moratorium that barred “the use of any land for new or expanded assembly, theater, or church, purposes during the period of the moratorium.”  The purpose of the moratorium was to give the City time to study the impacts of these types of assembly uses in business zones.  The same day the moratorium was imposed, the City amended the zoning regulations by removing “theaters” (which had been allowed as-of-right) and replacing that use with “multi-plex theater” as a conditional use.

The city subsequently denied Riverside’s text amendment application, and Riverside sued under RLUIPA and the First Amendment, among other things.  While litigation was pending, the City utilized RLUIPA’s safe harbor provision to amend its zoning code to remove “multi-plex theater” and add “assembly, religious institution, house of worship” as conditional uses in the B-1 district.  In April, 2015, the city issued Riverside a conditional use permit to use the property, but the cost of the property had increased such that Riverside could no longer afford the purchase price.

In considering Riverside’s freedom of speech claim, the court focused on the zoning ordinance before it was amended to allow religious uses in the B-1 district.  The court first found that the city’s zoning ordinance “served to regulate secondary effects of religious land use.  The Zoning Ordinance’s stated purpose included ‘public health and safety’ and the ‘general welfare of the inhabitants of the City.’”  Although the court found the zoning ordinance to be content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, it determined that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored to further the city’s stated governmental interests (largely dealing with traffic impact), and violated the First Amendment.  Specifically, in 2015, the city issued a report prompted by the moratorium that recommended that assemblies for religious worship be treated exactly the same as theatres.  Prior to 2015, however, religious uses were prohibited in the B-1 district.  According to the court, a more narrowly tailored alternative available to address the city’s specific public health and safety concerns would have been to allow Riverside to use the property with conditions meant to address the city’s interests.  The court also analyzed and rejected Riverside’s defamation claim resulting from settlement discussions that had taken place between Riverside and the city.

The decision is noteworthy for its analysis of the “secondary effects” doctrine as applied to religious uses.  Generally, the secondary effects doctrine has been applied to the regulation of adult entertainment uses.  For more on this topic, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, check out “Content Neutral Land Use Regulation After Reed: Recent Developments in Signs, Adult Businesses, and Religious Uses.”

The decision in Riverside Church v. City of St. Michael (District of Minnesota, 2017) is available here.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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