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Seventh Circuit: No RLUIPA Violation for Rejecting Bible Camp’s Zoning Requests

A recent decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Wisconsin town did not violate RLUIPA when it refused to allow a year-round Bible camp to operate in a single-family residential area. In Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center, Inc. v. Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin, No. 3:10-cv-00118 (7th Cir. Oct. 30, 2013), Eagle Cove claimed the Town and County violated RLUIPA and various constitutional provisions by refusing to allow Eagle Cove to build and operate a year-round Bible camp on 34 acres of residentially zoned property in the Town. The single-family residential zone was created to provide quiet and secluded areas for families, and all recreational camps are speficially prohibited in the zone.

Eagle Cove first attempted to rezone the Property to Recreational, but the County denied the rezoning petition because Eagle Cove’s proposed use conflicted with the residential area. The County specifically considered RLUIPA’s implications and determined Eagle Cove could still achieve its objectives through a conditional use permit rather than rezoning the Property. Eagle Cove then applied for a conditional use permit to build the Bible camp on the Property. The plans submitted by Eagle Cove included a lodge that was larger than 106,000 square feet, with a maximum capacity of 348 campers and 60 additional outdoor camp sites. The County again denied the application, finding the requested use was incompatible with the adjacent properties and the single-family residential zone.

Eagle Cove then filed suit, alleging various violations of RLUIPA and the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town and County on all counts. Eagle Cove’s RLUIPA exclusion claim was rejected because Eagle Cove could still use their land for religious assembly, just not a year-round Bible camp. In order to state a valid RLUIPA exclusion claim, religious assembly use must be totally excluded. Eagle Cove’s unreasonable limitations claim under RLUIPA was similarly rejected because there were many other areas within the Town in which the year-round Bible camp was an acceptable use. Eagle Cove’s substantial burden claimed likewise failed since Eagle Cove admitted that there were four other pieces of land within the Town that were suitable for its Bible camp, suggesting that it was not the local land use regulations that burdened Eagle Cove’s own religious exercise. Eagle Cove’s equal terms claim under RLUIPA failed because the Town’s zoning code prohibited all residential camps outright in the residential area, and thus the Town had treated both secular and religious recreational camps in the same manner.

This case is particularly instructive because it demonstrates RLUIPA is not a “get out of jail free” card that allows religious institutions to avoid having to comply with local land use regulations, as many RLUIPA critics often suggest. Rather, the case reinforces RLUIPA’s primary purpose: to create an even playing field for religious institutions that have historically been subject to discreet, and sometimes blatant, discriminatory treatment from local governments when compared to their secular counterparts.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience litigating RLUIPA claims on behalf of religious institutions nationwide. Feel free to contact us if you believe you have been subject to an improper or discriminatory land use decision. The full Seventh Circuit opinion is available here.

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