Church Sufficiently Alleged City’s Zoning Action Amounted To Substantial Burden On Its Religious Exercise

In International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, (— F.3d —-, C.A.9 (Cal.), February 15, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered whether a city imposed a substantial burden on a church’s religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and whether the city proved a compelling interest for its actions. The court of appeals held that the church alleged sufficient facts to proceed on its claim that the city imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise and that the city failed to prove a compelling interest for its actions.

Facts

Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church (“Church”) is located in the City of San Leandro (“City”) and is affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (“ICFG”). Because Church’s membership had substantially increased over the past fifteen years, it began looking for another property. Church ultimately found property located in an industrial park (“IP”) zoning district and signed a purchase and sale agreement for the property. After meeting with City planning officials to discuss the acquisition of the property, City advised that the zoning code did not permit assembly uses in an IP district but that certain amendments to the zoning code would allow Church to relocate to the property. Following City’s instructions, Church filed an application for a zoning map amendment requesting the property be rezoned from IP to Industrial Limited (“IL”) and requesting that assembly use be allowed on IL properties throughout the City. Even though City advised Church to apply for an amendment to the zoning code, City became concerned over the policy implications of allowing an assembly use in an industrial zone. City notified Church the application for the amendment would require further analysis by staff and would be considered at public hearings.

City staff developed two options that would allow the City to expand the accommodation of assembly uses in nonresidential districts. The first option would “make assembly use a conditionally permitted use in all areas zoned IL and the second option would create a new “Assembly Use Overlay District,” which, “when applied to any non-residential property, would make assemblies an allowable use in addition to those allowed under the pre-existing zoning.” The second option would also “apply the Assembly Use (“AU”) Overlay designation to certain non-residential properties identified by Planning Staff as suitable for assembly use, according to criteria staff had developed from the City’s General Plan.” The City chose the second option, refined the criteria for selection of properties to be included in the AU Overlay zone, began drafting the zoning code amendments, and ultimately approved the AU Overlay District and Map amendments “passing an ordinance that consolidated and equalized treatment of secular and religious assembly uses” and created a new AU Overlay District. Based on the selection criteria created to select properties to include in the AU Overlay District, the City determined the Church’s property should not be included.

Church then filed an application to amend the zoning of the property from “IP” to “IP (AU) with Assembly Use Overlay.” After considering the application, the City determined the property did not meet the criteria and denied Church’s application. The City Council denied Church’s appeal. Church filed a lawsuit against City. The federal district court granted judgment in favor of City.

Decision

The issue before the district court was whether the City’s denial of the Church’s applications violated certain provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Pursuant to RLUIPA, a government land-use regulation “‘that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a . . . religious assembly or institution’ is unlawful ‘unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.'”

The court of appeals first held that the district court erred as a matter of law in finding the actions of the City “did not impose a substantial burden on the Church’s exercise of religion within the meaning of RLUIPA.” ICFG has the burden to establish the City’s land use regulation or denial of the conditional use permit “imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise.” The Church submitted evidence from its realtor and a former City Manager showing that no other suitable properties existed to accommodate the Church’s expanded operations. The district court rejected this evidence because it was not sufficient to “create a triable issue of fact on the burden placed on the Church.” The court of appeals, however, found the Church’s evidence represented more than “the scintilla of evidence required to defeat summary judgment.” The district court also held that even if no other properties were suitable, the denial of the Church’s applications did not impose a substantial burden. The court of appeals, however, found that the cases cited by the district court did not support its conclusion.

The court of appeals also held “the district court’s dismissal of the Church’s assertion that there was no other property suitable to accommodate its religious use in the City is based, at least in part, on its improper scrutiny of the Church’s core religious beliefs.” The Church contends two of its core beliefs require it meet in one place to engage in “joyous corporate worship” and hold Sunday school and other ministries at the same time. Despite these core beliefs, the district court agreed with the City’s argument that the Church could acquire several smaller properties throughout the City. The court of appeals found the district court’s rejection of the Church’s core beliefs “runs counter to the Supreme Court’s admonition that while a court can arbiter the sincerity of an individual’s religious beliefs, courts should not inquire into the truth or falsity of stated religious beliefs.” The court of appeals concluded the Church raised more than a scintilla of evidence that the City imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise.

Second, the court of appeals held the district court erred in finding that the “City’s claimed need to preserve properties for industrial use qualified as a compelling governmental interest as a matter of law.” Specifically, the appellate court concluded that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the City used the least restrictive means to achieve its interest because even though the City would like to preserve properties for industrial use, the City failed to present evidence that “it could not achieve the same goals by using other property within its jurisdiction for that purpose.”

For the above reasons, the court reversed the district court’s granting of the summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Questions

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Jeffrey L. Massey | 916.321.4500

Jon E. Goetz | 805.786.4302