Federal Court Rejects Church’s Religious Land Use Claims Based on Government’s Legitimate Zoning Concerns

Robinson+Cole RLUIPA Defense

A federal court in Nevada has ruled that the denial of a church’s special use permit application to develop property with a house of worship did not violate RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, or state law.  Significantly, this case demonstrates the bedrock principle that land use agencies may deny zoning applications for religious use for legitimate zoning concerns.  In this case, the land use agency deemed the site in question inappropriate for a house of worship because it was adjacent to a dangerous intersection with existing traffic problems and would be incompatible with the quiet neighborhood.

The court’s rejection of the RLUIPA claim is also noteworthy for its treatment of substantial burden claims.  For one, the court examined whether there was any unnecessary delay in the zoning process or expense incurred by the religious group, and concluded that the short amount of time taken by the land use agency to render its decision (3 months) weighed against there being a substantial burden on religious exercise.  By comparison, another Ninth Circuit decision, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, 673 F.3d 1059 (9th Cir. 2011), found that the protracted, year-long process of public hearings and deliberations on zoning applications supported a RLUIPA violation.  Second, the court in the instant case found that because the religious group could seek permission to develop another property, there was no burden.  In other words, the Church did not allege that this was the only site available to it, meaning there may be other viable alternatives locations for it to use for religious worship.

The case involved Pentecostal Church of God (“Church”), which applied for a permit to build a church at 990 Riverview Drive in Douglas County, Nevada, in the single-family residential zoning district.  Although zoning staff recommended approving the Church’s application, the Douglas County Planning Commission (“Commission”) denied the application for failing to meet two provisions in the zoning code: (1) The project would not be “compatible with and preserve[] the character and integrity of adjacent development and neighborhoods” despite the “improvements or modifications [that would] mitigate development related adverse impacts;” and (2) The project would “generate pedestrian or vehicular traffic which will be hazardous or conflict with the existing and anticipated traffic in the neighborhood.”

The Church appealed the denial to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners (“Board”).  At the public hearing, neighborhood opponents voiced concern over the project’s impact on traffic, given the busy intersection adjacent to the property; the impact on the nature of the neighborhood; negative impacts on business, residential values, and the “quiet-nature of the community.”  The Board affirmed the Commission’s denial of the application.

The Church sued Douglas County and the Board, arguing that the denial of the application substantially burdened its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA.  The court distinguished the case from two other Ninth Circuit decisions – International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, 450 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2006).  The court concluded that the substantial burden claim failed given the speedy zoning process, lack of evidence of financial loss incurred by the Church, no allegation that other properties were not available for religious use, and legitimate zoning concerns regarding negative traffic impact in an already busy, and possibly dangerous, intersection.

The court also rejected the Church’s class-of-one equal protection claim because there was no evidence that the defendants intentionally targeted the Church.  Nor could the Church identify any similarly situated comparators that had been treated better by the defendants.  The Due Process claim failed because it was premised on violation of RLUIPA.  Finally, the court quickly dispelled the Church’s state law claim that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, considering the strong public opposition at the public hearing.

The decision in Pentecostal Church of God v. Douglas County, No. 3:16-cv-00400 (D. NV 2018) 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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