SCENARIO: Salvation Temple Church (the “Church”) is a Christian congregation located in Warren, Michigan. The Church intended to open a new facility at the site of a former banquet facility (the “Property”) in Hazel Park, Michigan (the “City”), which had been vacant since 2002. The Property was located in a business zone that did not permit religious uses. The zone included numerous other permitted uses, however, including: veterinary clinics, restaurants, hair and nail salons, assembly halls, and health clubs. In fact, the City only allowed religious uses to be located in residential zones, which had been completely developed according to the City’s own records.
In December 2009, the Church entered into an agreement to purchase the Property. Three months later, the Church applied for a variance that would allow it to use the Property as a worship facility. However, the City denied the request. In response to the denial, the Church notified the City that its conduct violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 USC 2000cc, et seq. The City did not respond to the Church’s notification, and thereafter the Church filed suit.
The City claimed its denial was proper under its 2005 Ordinance, which prohibited new religious institutions from opening on industrial- or commercially-zoned property within the City limits. The 2005 Ordinance was adopted three months after an Islamic group sought City approval to operate a mosque in the City. The City Planner suggested the mosque locate at the site of the former banquet hall, but the City rejected the Planner’s recommendation and passed the ordinance that eliminated religious uses in industrial or commercial zones.
The City again cited the 2005 Ordinance when it denied the Church’s request to occupy the same Property. While the City permitted religious institutions in residential districts, the City was aware by its own records that all residential property within the City limits was 100% developed. Further, the Church argued that the fact that several businesses were allowed to operate in the business district, while religious uses were the only not allowed, demonstrated the City’s attempt to keep only tax-generating businesses in the City’s commercial districts. The City’s lack of residential property, coupled with the 2005 Ordinance’s restrictions, prevented the Church from operating anywhere in the City.
RESOLUTION: The Church filed suit against the City of Hazel Park in October 2010, alleging that the City’s 2005 Zoning Ordinance was unconstitutional and a violation of RLUIPA because it effectively prevented any new religious organizations from being able to open within the City. The suit sought money damages, as well as injunctive and declaratory relief.
On December 3, 2010, the parties entered a Consent Judgment with the court. The Consent Judgment prohibited the City from enforcing its zoning ordinance that excluded religious entities in commercial and industrial zones. In return, the Church agreed to pay several thousand dollars in back taxes on the Property. As a result of the agreement, the Church was able to complete its purchase of the Property and move its congregation to the new facilities.
The Church continues to flourish and hold bi-weekly services at its Hazel Park facilities. The dilemma between the City of Hazel Park and Salvation Temple Church demonstrates the all-too- common discrimination religious entities in this country face. Their tax-exempt status too often leads to municipalities doing everything within their power to ensure that income-generating (and tax-paying) businesses are given priority over religious organizations when it comes to operating in that city. RLUIPA is an effective and invaluable tool that allows these religious institutions to be treated equally in comparison with secular entities in regards to land use.