Florida Court Finds RLUIPA Protects Transition Home for Registered Sex Offenders

Robinson+Cole RLUIPA Defense

If you are a municipality defending against a RLUIPA lawsuit, it is generally not a good sign when a court’s memorandum of decision begins with a string of biblical quotes.  Wakulla County Florida experienced this earlier this summer.  When granting a religious group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to operate a transition home, Judge Mark Walker opened his decision by writing:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?” Matthew 25:44. To which the Lord replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”  Id. 25:45.  Scripture teaches that by serving those in need, particularly those shunned by society, one serves the Lord.  See James 2:14-16 (“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”).

The court went on to find that Wakulla County’s actions in prohibiting City Walk – Urban Mission Inc. (Urban Mission) from operating a transition home for three or more people, including registered sex offenders, violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision.

Urban Mission’s mission is to serve everyone regardless of their past because “[e]very saint has a past [and] [e]very sinner has a future.”  It seeks to rehabilitate as many individuals as it can by helping them find love, forgiveness, and a new life in Jesus and believes that registered sex offenders are particularly shunned in society and in need of assistance.  The residents are generally in Urban Mission’s program for a year, must abide by house rules, attend religious devotion periods, and abstain from drugs and alcohol.  Residents must also work while there and those who are not able to find a job on their own work at Urban Mission’s thrift store and outreach center in Tallahassee.

Urban Mission found a property at 55 Ball Court in Crawfordville, Florida that it wanted to use for a transition home for at least three people at a time.  Prior to leasing the property, Urban Mission conducted zoning due diligence to make sure that its proposed operation would be allowed.  It contacted the County’s planning and zoning department and was told that the transition home would be permitted as a “family care home” and there could be up to 6 unrelated adults at the property.  With this information in-hand, Urban Mission leased the property and operated without issue for a year until neighbors learned that registered sex offenders lived there.  In response to neighbor complaints, the County issued a notice of violation, stating that the operation amounted to a “boardinghouse,” a prohibited use in the subject RR-1 zone.  The Wakulla County Code Enforcement Board upheld the notice of violation and ordered that the property no longer be used as a boardinghouse.  Four months later, the County Board of Commissioners amended the Code by removing “family care homes” and “shelter homes” from principal uses permitted in the zone.  The County issued a notice of repeat violation in February 2020 after it received complaints that the Property was being used as a boardinghouse by three unrelated persons.

Urban Mission sued the County asserting violations of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the County from enforcing its Land Use Development Code to prohibit operation of the transition home.  The Court granted the preliminary injunction, finding that Urban Mission was likely to succeed on the merits of its substantial burden claim.  The court found the case distinguishable from others in which religious land users could relocate their religious uses to other property.  Of note was the County Director of Planning and Community Development informing Urban Mission that there was nowhere in the County where it could operate its transition house.  The court put it this way:

Defendant leaves Plaintiff with a binary chose: either conform its religious exercise and reduce the number of residents in the property by two-thirds, turn away individuals it can help, and evict individuals that it is currently helping; or risk fines and eviction.  Such a burden which cannot be alleviated is not a mere inconvenience; rather, it puts substantial pressure on Plaintiff to change its religious exercise so that it may conform to Defendant’s requirements.  The two-adult limitation, therefore, imposes a substantial burden on Plaintiff’s religious exercise.”

According to the court, the County’s actions caused Urban Mission to suffer more than a mere inconvenience because it reduced the number of people Urban Mission could serve by two-thirds and forced Urban Mission to turn away adults who needed help.  The court rejected the County’s alleged compelling interest in furthering the purpose of its zoning regulations in a generalized way.  In order for a local government to satisfy the compelling interest standard it must identify more than a general interest.  In this case, the County had to show why excluding the transition home would somehow further its compelling interest with specific (not generalized) evidence.  The County could not do so.

The court’s decision in City Walk – Urban Mission Inc. v. Wakulla County Florida (Northern District of Florida 2020) 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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