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First Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Need for RLUIPA Plaintiffs to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

A recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals showed how important it is for religious organizations claiming a government has violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) to exhaust their administrative remedies before heading to court.

In Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, (“RCB”) brought RLUIPA and constitutional free exercise claims after the city enacted a historic zone over Our Lady of Hope as a means by which to prevent the closure of the church. As RCB had not requested any permits to modify or otherwise close or sell the church, most of RCB’s claims under RLUIPA were unripe for adjudication.

Members of Our Lady of Hope were upset when the RBC announced that it would close the church effective January 1, 2010, as part of realignment and cost saving measures. As a means by which to prevent the closure of the church, members lobbied to have the church deemed historic. If the church were deemed historic, it could not be demolished, destroyed or altered in any way without permission from the Springfield Historic Commission. Typically when the RCB closes a church, the exterior is altered by the removal or covering of religiously significant emblems and windows.

Eventually, in December 2009, the City created a historical district that contained only one parcel – Our Lady of Hope. The ordinance creating the historic district went into effect on January 20, 2010. The following day, the RCB filed suit against the City of Springfield in state court, alleging violations of RLUIPA, as well as the U.S. and Massachusetts constitutions. After the city removed the case to federal court, both parties moved for summary judgment.

The district court denied the RCB’s summary judgment request, finding most of its claims were not ripe for adjudication because the church had not requested permits or received a denial from the historic commission for any changes to the church. However, for those claims that were ripe, the district court found that the bishop’s substantial burden claim under RLUIPA failed as a matter of law because the burden was not substantial. In dismissing the other claims, the district court focused on the Massachusetts Historic Districts Act – the law used to create the historic zone – instead of the historic zone created on the church’s property.

On appeal, the First Circuit Court of Appeals found that the RCB’s claims were ripe to the extent that they challenge the creation of the historic district. “There is no doubt that the City intends to enforce the Ordinance against RCB and that RCB must submit several categories of its decisionmaking, otherwise governed by religious doctrine, to the SHC.” Thus, the RCB’s claims were ripe because the burden on the church was created by being subject to the historic district regulations, meaning the bishop did not have to submit applications for permits.

“RCB has credibly alleged that the requirement of submitting to the SHC’s authority presently imposes, delay, uncertainty, and expense, which is sufficient to show present injury.” Additionally, “[b]ecause these challenges rest solely on the existence of the (historic designation over the church), no further factual development is necessary, and the Ordinance’s existence does confront RCB with a ‘direct and immediate dilemma.’”

As to the merits of the substantial burden claim, the First Circuit declined to demarcate a set test for what constitutes a substantial burden and instead decided to “identify some relevant factors and use a functional approach to the facts of a particular case. We recognize different types of burdens and that such burdens may cumulate to become substantial.” After considering the decisions from other courts of appeal, as well as dictionary definitions of the word substantial, the court focused on several factors: whether a regulation targets a particular religious organization, whether a process is facially neutral but as applied appears targeted at a certain outcome, and whether the land use restriction is imposed on a religious institution “arbitrarily, capriciously, or unlawfully.”

In the case at bar, the First Circuit found it troubling that the historic zone over the church was created only after it was announced that the church was slated for closure. However, despite the troubling facts, RCB still only had to apply to the historic board. Such a burden, the First Circuit held, was not substantial. “The Ordinance asks RCB only to delay the decisions it makes pursuant to is deconsecration plans while the SHC evaluates its application, a process that, according to the SHC’s own rules, should take no more than sixty days.”

Thus, RCB was not entitled to summary judgment on its substantial burden claim under RLUIPA. RCB also could not establish that the historic ordinance violated its First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion for the same reasons that its substantial burden claim proved unsuccessful. The Court rejected RCB’s state law claims for the same reasons it rejected its federal claims.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich are national leaders in bringing RLUIPA and related constitutional claims on behalf of religious institutions against local governments in federal courts in Michigan, California, and other states. If you believe your religious institution has been improperly deprived of a lawful use of its property as protected under RLUIPA, please contact us.

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