In a unanimous decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict, finding that sufficient evidence was presented at trial to justify the jury’s determination that the denial of the Church’s special use application violated the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The non-denominational evangelical Christian church wanted to expand its campus in exurban Niwot, five miles northeast of the city of Boulder. Boulder County refused to approve the permits to make the $30 million expansion, citing what it called the rural nature of the area. In 2006, the Church challenged that decision under RLUIPA, a federal civil rights law which protects churches from unfair, unreasonable and burdensome land use regulations.
In 2008, a federal jury found that Boulder County violated the Church’s rights under RLUIPA by treating it on less than equal terms with secular land users, imposing unreasonable limitations on churches in the county, and placing a substantial burden on its religious exercise. The Tenth Circuit upheld that verdict, finding that the jury’s verdict was reasonable and upholding the district court’s order that the church should be permitted to build its expansion. The lower court has also approved more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs that the County will have to pay to the church.
The Court of Appeals specifically held, with respect to the Equal Terms Provision, the Court determined that the way the County treated an application of a school, was a similar enough comparator for purposes of analysis. The Court also determined that there is no affirmative defense to an Equal Terms challenge. The Court also found that the County violated the unreasonable limitations provision of RLUIPA based on testimony presented that it was more difficult now for a church to be sited in the County.
This is a significant case with national implications concerning the use of land for religious entities. The Boulder County is considering an appeal to the United States Supreme Court this summer.