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Federal Court Rules Hope Lutheran Church’s RLUIPA Equal Terms Claim May Proceed

Court decisionThis week, United States District Court Judge Paul Maloney upheld Hope Lutheran Church’s Equal Terms claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) against the City of St. Ignace. The decision is an important win for the Church in its case to defend its religious land use rights.

By way of background, Hope Lutheran is a small church with a congregation of about 20-25 people. For several years, the Church had to meet in an inadequate, rented space because it could not find a property to acquire and use for its ministry activities. In February 2018 the Church acquired the property located at 132 South State Street in St. Ignace.This property is located in the General Business District (GBD). According to the City’s zoning ordinance, numerous non-religious assembly uses (including assembly halls, theaters, and townhalls) are permitted as of right in the GBD. However, churches are prohibited.

The Zoning Administrator issued a letter confirming the City’s position that operating a church at the property would be a “violation of the City’s code of ordinances” and indicating the Church must apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a use variance if it wanted to have a church at the property. In June 2018 the Church applied for a use variance but was denied on or about the same day by City Manager. About a month later, the ZBA held a hearing on the Church’s request for a use variance. After the public hearing, the ZBA voted unanimously to deny the Church’s request. Hope Lutheran then had no other options but to file a lawsuit.

The Church argued the City knowingly discriminated against the Church by denying the use variance and by failing to afford it equal treatment with the nonreligious and nonprofit assembly uses permitted in the GBD. The City moved to dismiss the Church’s claims, arguing that the Church was receiving equal treatment, and the City’s ordinances did not violate RLUIPA.

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In denying the City’s motion to dismiss the Church’s RLUIPA Equal Terms claim, Judge Maloney reasoned “St. Ignace is not entitled to dismissal of Hope Lutheran’s RLUIPA equal treatment claim. Hope Lutheran has identified comparable entities based on the legitimate zoning criteria in the zoning ordinance. St. Ignace’s explanation for why the Hope Lutheran and other secular entities should be treated differently are not based on the criteria in the zoning ordinance.” The Judge’s opinion upholding the Church’s request to be treated equally goes a long way in resolving the central issue in the case. And the Church has even greater hope now that it’ll be able to continue serving its community at its current location.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC are the national leaders in religious land use law. It is our pleasure to continue to represent Hope Lutheran in this matter. You can read more about the case here and here. If you or your organization’s religious rights are being violated, please contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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