A federal court in Washington recently granted summary judgment in favor of a Catholic High School that brought a RLUIPA equal terms claim against the City of Seattle. The court found that the City had denied a variance to the school using criteria that was less than equal to the criteria to which similarly situated public schools were subject. The ruling provides further clarity to the Ninth Circuit’s approach to equal terms claims under RLUIPA.
In Bishop Blanchet High School v. City of Seattle, Bishop Blanchet, a private Catholic High School, was located in a single-family residential zone in Seattle. In order to light its athletic fields, Bishop Blanchet sought approval from the City to install four, seventy-foot-tall light poles. Since the poles would exceed the thirty-foot height limit for such structures, Bishop Blanchet needed to obtain a variance from the City.
The City Department of Planning and Development (DPD) approved Bishop Blanchet’s application with 21 conditions that the school was required to meet. Soon after, a group of neighbors opposed to the new lighting appealed the DPD decision to the Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner reversed the approval and found that Bishop Blanchet did not meet the criteria for granting a variance.
The lawsuit arose because Seattle provides an exemption from the thirty-foot height limit for field lighting for public schools. The same exception is not provided to private schools. Bishop Blanchet brought suit under the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The opinion came after all parties moved for summary judgment.
The equal terms provision of RLUIPA provides that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” Once a religious institution establishes the elements of its case, the burden of persuasion then shifts to the government to show why the law has not been violated.
In order to determine whether treatment of a religious institution is “equal,” courts in the Ninth Circuit use the “accepted zoning criteria test.” This means that a religious institution cannot be treated less than equally with a nonreligious institution if the two institutions cannot be distinguished in the basis of the accepted zoning criteria that define the zone.
The City argued that the less than equal treatment of Bishop Blanchet was justified by the zoning criteria of “fostering the provision of public facilities by governmental agencies.” However, the court concluded that “fostering the provision of public facilities by governmental agencies” had no relation to zoning criteria, and was simply a subjective statement. The phrase appeared nowhere in the relevant zoning code sections, and did not require the City to deny Bishop Blanchet the exemption afforded to public schools.
When the court did consider the acceptable zoning criteria, such as “noise, parking, and lighting,” it found that Bishop Blanchet was similarly situated to public schools in the area. The court concluded that since Bishop Blanchet was similarly situated to the public schools which received the exemption sought by Bishop Blanchet, the City had violated the equal terms provision of RLUIPA by treating Bishop Blanchet on less than equal terms with the public school. The court ordered the City to reconsider Bishop Blanchet’s proposal for outdoor lighting using the same standard that applied to public schools.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience litigating RLUIPA claims in the Ninth Circuit and across the country. We represent religious institutions of all faiths. If you feel that the rights of your institution are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak to you about your matter.