A Missouri federal district court last week found that a church’s claims that its religious exercise rights were violated when the City of St. Louis shut down and evacuated the church’s tent used to offer religious services to homeless persons last year without a hearing could move forward.
In New Life Evangelistic Center, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, New Life leased a number of properties in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Kansas and hosted a number of religious services while also providing spiritual and physical comfort to homeless people. On May 14, 2012, New Life informed the public safety director of St. Louis that it would be placing a large tent on the property New Life leased in the City to host religious services. The City responded the next day, indicating that it would condemn the property before New Life held its services because New Life had not complied with unnamed and unknown City codes.
On May 16, New Life disregarded the City’s threats and began to erect a 20-foot-by-40-foot tent, which was occupied by 15 people who attended the religious service. No food was served, no electricity was provided, and no open fires were maintained inside the tent. However, at 5 p.m. the same day the City issued an emergency condemnation order because the tent posed an immediate danger to the public health, safety, or welfare. St. Louis police officers dispersed the crowd and arrested four persons for occupying a condemned building.
New Life filed suit against the City on June 16, alleging that its rights to due process and the free exercise of its religion were violated. New Life had not received notice and a hearing before it was deprived of the use of its property, and such action by the City substantially burdened New Life’s religious exercise. The City filed a counterclaim, alleging that New Life planned to erect a “tent city” in the near future, thereby causing a public safety hazard. The City moved to have New Life’s claims dismissed, while New Life moved to have the City’s claim dismissed.
The Court dismissed the City’s claims as unripe, while finding that New Life’s claims could proceed. With respect to the City’s claims, the court found them to be unripe, as the church had yet to erect any tent city. “While Defendant may have anticipated that Plaintiff intended to create a sleeping encampment, there are no facts set out in either the Complaint or the Counterclaim that Plaintiff actually took steps to violate the City Code.”
However, the Court denied the City’s motion to dismiss New Life’s claims. The City had argued that the church’s claims were not ripe, as New Life had not been issued a legal occupancy permit for an encampment. This, the Court held, missed the point. “Plaintiff’s Complaint is based on its intent to use the property as a worship venue and homeless outreach. Nowhere in the Complaint does Plaintiff allege, or even suggest, that it intends to utilize the property for a homeless shelter or encampment.” Instead, New Life’s claims were based on setting up tents that do not require permits from the City. Thus, New Life’s claims were ripe and could move forward.
Ripeness issues, particularly in the context of constitutional claims intertwined with land use matters, are intricate issues that can sometimes lead to a dismissal of claims before they are even reviewed on the merits. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience handling land use matters and constitutional claims on behalf of persons and institutions against local governments in federal courts in Michigan, California, and across the nation. If you believe you have been improperly deprived of a lawful use of your property, please contact us.