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On Our Docket This Month

                                                                  On Our Docket This Month

                                                              Dan Cortez

The attorneys of Dalton & Tomich are national leaders in land use litigation, particularly with respect to claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).  However, the firm continues to see an increase in land use claims under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) both in Michigan and across the U.S.  In one of these cases, Dalton & Tomich has taken the lead in defending the FHA and RLUIPA rights of a Christian-based rescue mission in Mississippi.

The Fair Housing Act provides that it is unlawful to “make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin” or “discriminate against any person…in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” This type of discrimination includes “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The FHA provides protection to those who suffer handicaps, which includes those persons who have “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities, a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.” This includes “individuals who have recovered from” an addiction or “are participating in a treatment program or self-help group such as Narcotics Anonymous…Depriving such individuals housing, or evicting them, would constitute irrational discrimination that may seriously jeopardize their continued recovery.”

Over the past several months, Dalton & Tomich has served as lead counsel for Lighthouse Rescue Mission in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  Lighthouse purchased what once was a Hattiesburg elementary school and sought to use the building as both a worship facility and a recovery facility for women who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  A key component of the ministry includes allowing the women and their children to live at the facility. Addiction recovery experts indicate that overnight stay is vital for recovering addicts so as to keep them from returning to old habits and neighborhoods and to allow them to concentrate fully on their recovery.

The property Lighthouse owns is located in a single-family residential zone of Hattiesburg that does not permit the type of overnight stay Lighthouse requires. Thus, Lighthouse sought to re-zone the property to a zone that allows both churches and group care facilities, but its request was denied.  The City Council later approved a use permit to use the property as a “church,” but explicitly prohibited overnight stay at the property.  This led Lighthouse to file suit in Mississippi federal court.  Lighthouse eventually sought a reasonable accommodation under the FHA, as the overnight stay is necessary to accommodate the needs of women who are deemed “handicapped” by drug and alcohol addiction under the FHA.  Hattiesburg never sent a formal response either granting or denying the request.

Lighthouse has also alleged that the city’s denial of its request for a rezoning of the property places a substantial burden on Lighthouse’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA.  Offering overnight stay to recovering addicts is  an integral part of Lighthouse’s religious exercise, and without that accommodation Lighthouse is forced to alter its religious conduct.  Additionally, denying the rezoning request did not serve a compelling governmental interest. 

Litigation in this matter continues, with summary judgment motions filed last month.  The final pretrial conference is scheduled for December, with a trial likely to begin in the first few months of 2014.  We will be sure to keep our followers updated on the progress of this matter.  For more information on FHA claims and other legal issues, be sure to check out our blog.

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