Celebration Church, a Christian Reformed Church located in Muskegon, Michigan finally had a home—or so they thought. The Church, which had opened its doors a few years prior, had worshiped in a high school gym since its inception while growing to several hundred members, necessitating more space. In late 2007, Celebration found just that—a property zoned B-4, which had originally served as an automobile dealership and now was permitted for a religious use through a special approval land use permit. The City planning staff recommended the approval of the proposed use as it met all of the requirements of the City Zoning Ordinance. However, upon examination by the Planning Commission in December 2007, the special land use permit was denied, with the Commission citing, most prominently, potential loss of property tax revenue. The decision was affirmed the following month.
Our firm initiated a law suit, on behalf of the Church, challenging the constitutionality of portions of the City of Muskegon Zoning Ordinance. Celebration Church alleged that the Zoning Ordinance- both on its face and as applied to it- violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and the Michigan Constitution. In particular, the Church contended that the Code’s discriminatory treatment of religious uses violated its constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, association and assembly, and equal protection of the laws. As a result, the Church argued that it would suffer irreparable harm unless the City was immediately enjoined from enforcing its discriminatory Zoning Ordinance against the Church.
Immediately after the suit was filed, the City’s attorney sought to engage in immediate settlement discussions. The Church agreed, resulting in mediation with the United States District Court Magistrate. The issues at mediation were fairly clear. The City agreed to allow the Church the appropriate land use they were seeking, as well as pay appropriate damages and attorney fees.