The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (“the Eleventh Circuit Court”) clarified how courts should determine whether a substantial burden on religious exercise exists under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). The case explaining the interpretation is Vision Warriors Church, Inc. v. Cherokee County Board of Commissioners.
Vision Warriors Church (“Vision Warriors”) is a “non-profit ministry that seeks to provide a faith-based community for men recovering from addiction” and “help[s] men to be better Disciples of Christ, fathers, husbands, leaders and friends” through a “residential program, weekly services, and faith-based meetings.” Vision Warriors Church, Inc. v. Cherokee Cnty. Bd. of Commissioners, No. 22-10773, 2024 WL 125969, at *5 (11th Cir. Jan. 11, 2024).
The property at issue in this case was located in Cherokee County and was once owed by the founders of “Happy Acres” whose mission was to “promote the recreation, health, safety, welfare, common benefit and enjoyment of missionaries and to help further aid their religious and spiritual beliefs and goals.” Id. at *1. Eventually, the founders expanded and built a church on the property which was approved by Cherokee County. Id.
Upon the death of one of their founders, Happy Acres decided to sell the property. Id. at *2. Before signing a Letter of Intent sell the property to Vision Warriors, Happy Acres was issued a letter by Cherokee County “could continue to house guests in the dormitory for short periods of time” but could not “expand the use to something different or increase the number of people served…” but “if the previous tenants were missionaries and the new tenants are planned to be recovering drug addicts, the[n] a different zoning will be required.” Id.
Before the purchase, the then zoning administer clarified with Happy Acres that she was the “interpreter of land use” and assured them the special use met Vision Warriors intended use. Id. After purchase of the Happy Acres property, Vision Warriors submitted and received a Tenant Occupancy Change permit. Id. After issuance, neighbors began to complain and eventually the permit was revoked. Id. at *3.
“Vision Warriors filed suit in federal court shortly thereafter against the County Defendants under the FHA, ADA, RLUIPA, and Fourteenth Amendment.” Id. at *4. “The District Court dismissed Vision Warriors’ RLUIPA claim upon the County Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and granted summary judgment on all remaining claims in favor of the County. In its order dismissing the RLUIPA claim, the district court relied on Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1227 (11th Cir. 2004), and found that decreasing the number of men who live on the property did not constitute a substantial burden under RLUIPA. Particularly, the district court noted that nothing in the complaint suggested that Vision Warriors could not still provide weekly services and faith-based meetings or even host six residents permanently.”
For the RLUIPA claim, the Eleventh Circuit Court ruled the District Court applied the incorrect standard in assessing Vision Warriors’ substantial burden claim. Id. at *7.
First, the District Court erred in its determination that because Vison Warriors could continue certain operations “the restriction on [Vision Warriors’] use of the Property imposed by Defendants [does] not effectively bar the use of the Property for religious exercise.” Id. This is incorrect as Eleventh Circuit “precedents do not require a regulation to ‘effectively bar’ or ‘remove [ ] any possibility’ of religious exercise to qualify as a substantial burden… [and] ‘whatever “substantial” means, it most assuredly does not mean complete, total, or insuperable.” Id. Second, the District Court “erred in applying a more demanding substantial burden standard from the Fourth Circuit.” Id. The test was not from the Eleventh Circuit and thus held no precedence and held [a]ssuming that Vision Warriors’ use of the property would serve an unmet religious need, the restriction on its use of the Property imposed by Defendants does not effectively bar the use of the Property for religious exercise.” Id.
This case illuminates the complexity that goes into filing a RLUIPA action in court. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have dealt with RLUIPA cases around the United States. If you have any questions concerning RLUIPA and religious property disputes, please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss your case.