The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich are national leaders in the area of religious land use litigation, and have successfully represented a variety of religious institutions across the country in their claims brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
Over the past several months, Dalton & Tomich has served as lead counsel for the Church of Our Savior in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Church of Our Savior is a Christian congregation organized in the Anglican tradition. The Church formed in 2006 and since then has grown to more than 100 members.
Since forming, the Church has never had its own worship facility. Currently, the Church uses its limited financial resources to rent space in an historic chapel in the City for four hours each Sunday. Outside of this four-hour window, Church members are unable to access the chapel. The Church rents a nearby mobile home that serves as office space, a meeting area, and a storage facility. Each Sunday, Church members must move all equipment and items needed for its worship services from the mobile home to the chapel, assemble the equipment, conduct two services, disassemble the equipment, and transport the equipment back to the mobile home within the four-hour window. The Church’s limited space has also forced it to hold activities in a variety of locations, including members’ homes and a neighborhood restaurant.
To remedy these logistical constraints, Church officials began looking for available vacant property in the City on which the Church could build a facility to house all its activities in one place. Since Jacksonville Beach is almost completely developed, this was not an easy task. In early 2013, the Church found a vacant parcel right off a busy, six-lane road in the City and purchased an option to buy the property. The property is adjacent to a large water park and go kart track and across the street from a large restaurant and entertainment complex and marina. Behind the property is a residential neighborhood, which is buffered with vegetation and landscaping. The property is accessed directly from the six-lane road so Church members would not need to drive through the neighborhood.
While the property was originally zoned commercial, the City initiated a rezoning of the property to single family residential around 1990. Under the City’s zoning ordinance, religious organizations are permitted in residential zones if the City grants conditional approval. The Church then applied for a conditional use permit and the Planning Department recommended approval of its application. Despite this recommendation, when it heard the application, the Planning Commission inexplicably voted to unanimously deny the Church’s request. The Church then slightly altered its plans and submitted a second conditional use permit application. Again, the Planning Department recommended approval of its application. Once again, the Planning Commission rejected the Planning Department’s advice and unanimously denied the application.
The City’s actions led the Church to file suit in Florida federal court. The Complaint alleges the City’s refusal to approve the Church’s conditional use permit requests violates RLUIPA by imposing a substantial burden on the Church’s religious exercise. The Church also alleges the City has violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms and Nondiscrimination provisions because it has granted conditional use approval for similar organizations in the single-family residential zone. Finally, the Church argues the City violated RLUIPA’s Unreasonable Limitations provisions by denying the Church’s applications without justification.
Litigation in this matter is ongoing, and the case is scheduled for trial on September 2, 2014 before District Judge Timothy Corrigan in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. We will be sure to keep our followers updated as the matter progresses. For more information on RLUIPA claims and other legal issues we handle, be sure to check out our blog.