Life Church, a rapidly growing nondenominational Christian congregation just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, had outgrown its previous home after its attendance soared to around 1,500 for Sunday services. To resolve the space constraints, Life Church purchased a 48,000 square foot vacant building in the city of De Pere to use as a house of worship. The building was in an area zoned exclusively for commercial development. In order to use the building for religious assembly, Life Church was required to submit an application to rezone the property.
Without the zoning change, Life Church would be entirely unable to use the building it recently purchased as a house of worship. Adding more pressure to the situation was the fact Life Church had already sold its previous building, meaning if the zoning change were denied, Life Church was at risk of being homeless.
After submitting its application, the De Pere Planning Commission voted 4-1 against Life Church’s request, instead recommending the extremely restrictive zoning designation for the building stay in place. The application was next required to go to the De Pere City Council for a final hearing.
At this point, Life Church reached out to the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to contact the City and advise them of the RLUIPA concerns.
Prior to the City Council’s final hearing, Dalton & Tomich attorney Dan Dalton submitted a letter to De Pere’s City Attorney in an effort to resolve Life Church’s issue without litigation. Mr. Dalton explained how RLUIPA and the First Amendment applied to Life Church’s situation and protected Life Church’s efforts to worship at the new building. Specifically, Mr. Dalton highlighted how denying Life Church’s request would likely violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech and Free Assembly provisions because it would continue to prohibit religious uses in the General Commercial District while also allowing similar secular assembly uses (hotels) to operate as of right.
Mr. Dalton further explained how De Pere’s existing zoning regulation, which barred all uses but commercial in the General Commercial District, raised serious concerns under RLUIPA. In particular, the zoning regulation likely violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision since it barred religious assemblies but allowed secular assembly uses including hotels. Also, the zoning regulation likely violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision in that it prevented Life Church from exercising its religious beliefs in a building that it owned.
After a three-hour City Council meeting, at which many Life Church parishioners made emotional speeches in favor of the Church and its ministry, the De Pere City Council voted to approve Life Church’s zoning request and allow Life Church to use the new building as a house of worship.
In this case, simply sending a letter that informed De Pere how denying the zoning change would violate RLUIPA and the First Amendment was enough to help Life Church avoid litigation and get the zoning approval it needed in a matter of days. While this strategy is not always successful, the Life Church case serves as an example of how lengthy, costly litigation is not the only way to resolve a potential RLUIPA dispute.
Daniel P. Dalton is the author of the nation’s first definitive guide to the litigation of cases under RLUIPA. Now in its second edition, Litigating Religious Land Use Cases provides practical advice for religious entities and lawyers representing them in religious land use claims.