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Court Clarifies When a Religious Land Use Case Is “Ripe” to Be Filed

Zoning matters are often procedurally complex. They can involve many layers of review, require several public hearings and votes from different governing bodies. So when a church applies for zoning approval, its application may be reviewed by professional zoning staff, a zoning administrator, a planning commission, a zoning board of appeals, and even a city council. 

At each level of review, a church may receive negative feedback or lose a key vote that may seem like the end of the road. It is easy to become frustrated or discouraged with the delays and costs of continuing to push an application through the review process—especially when the outcome feels like a foregone conclusion. Churches can often tell in advance whether they have the votes or not and may be tempted to cut their losses, pull their application, and seek relief from the courts. But those that run to court too soon will quickly run into the issue of “ripeness.”

At its core, the concept of “ripeness” is rooted in the Constitutional limitation on the authority of federal courts to hear only cases or controversies. Federal courts are not there to resolve abstract disagreements or give their opinion about speculative matters. The focus of the ripeness inquiry is on “whether there yet is any need for the court to act.” Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 3532.1 (2d ed. 1984). A busy federal judge will want to ensure that the court is not being asked to resolve an issue that is not yet ripe for review. So if a church seeks to file a claim under the United States Constitution or the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), it needs to be sure that its claim is ripe.

For many years, the ripeness inquiry in RLUIPA cases was often clouded by the Supreme Court’s now-overruled decision in the takings case of Williamson Cnty. Reg’l Plan. Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), overruled by Knick v. Twp. of Scott, Pennsylvania, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019). Some, but not all, federal courts extended what became known as the Williamson County “final decision requirement” to RLUIPA claims that were filed before they were ripe. For example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Guatay Christian Fellowship v. County of San Diego, held that it could not determine if the church had been “substantially burdened” under RLUIPA because the church had failed to submit a single use permit application. 670 F.3d 957, 976 (9th Cir. 2011). The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Murphy v. New Milford Zoning Comm’n, likewise dismissed the Murphy’s RLUIPA claim because they never asked the Zoning Board of Appeals to approve their use. 402 F.3d 342, 352 (2d Cir. 2005). Because the plaintiffs in both Guatay and Murphy could not show that the local government had ever committed to a position that was causing actual harm, their claims were dismissed as unripe.

However, since Murphy and Guatay, the Supreme Court has not only overruled Williamson County but has also recently clarified the “finality” requirement in Pakdel v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, California, 141 S. Ct. 2226, 2230 (2021). The Supreme Court has now made clear that the “finality requirement is relatively modest,” and “[a]ll a plaintiff must show is that ‘there [is] no question … about how the ‘regulations at issue apply to the particular land in question.’” (internal citation omitted). The only finality that is required is “de facto finality.” Id. 

Recently, the Second Circuit applied Pakdel to reverse a district court for dismissing an Orthodox Jewish school’s RLUIPA claim as not ripe under Murphy and Williamson CountyAteres Bais Yaakov Acad. of Rockland v. Town of Clarkstown, No. 22-1741-CV, 2023 WL 8494453, at *4-5 (2d Cir. Dec. 8, 2023). The court found the town’s position concerning the school’s religious exercise sufficiently final for ripeness purposes. Id. The court expressly rejected the town’s argument that the school’s claims were not ripe because the Zoning Board of Appeals had never issued a final decision on the merits of the school’s land use application. Id. The Second Circuit also noted that “federal courts have an obligation to adjudicate cases that invoke our jurisdiction, and we do not close our doors to litigants properly seeking federal review simply because their grievances touch on local zoning matters.” Id.

It is now more important than ever for Churches to not only understand their religious land use rights but also when they can assert them. If you need help evaluating whether your church or religious institution has a “ripe” claim to file, please contact the religious land use attorneys at Dalton & Tomich PLC.

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