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Building Code is a Land Use Regulation for Purposes of RLUIPA

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee held that a local church may proceed with most of its claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  In Layman Lessons Church v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, the Court sustained several of the Plaintiff’s claims, denying most of the Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Court outlined the RLUIPA claims as follows:

“…RLUIPA provides that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2). Count II of the Second Amended Complaint alleges a violation of this provision.

RLUIPA also 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. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1). Count III of the Second Amended Complaint alleges a violation of this provision.
Finally, RLUIPA states that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions or structures within a jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(3). Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint alleges a violation of this provision.”
In the case of permits relating to a barn that was  to be used by the church, the issue involved the application of a code that did not involve a zoning regulation, which the Defendant argued was therefore not a “land use” regulation covered by the language of RLUIPA. As in an earlier Second Circuit case, where it was argued that the State Environmental Quality Review Act was not a land use regulation, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff’s argument, noting:
“…Plaintiff has alleged misuse of both zoning and non-zoning regulations by Defendant to prevent Plaintiff’s use of the property. Where the record supports the inference that a locality disingenuously used its procedures to obstruct and ultimately deny a plaintiff’s religious building, courts decline to insulate the municipality from liability with regard to its decisions on zoning issues simply because it decided them under the rubric of an ostensibly non-zoning process. United States v. County of Culpepper, Virginia, 245 F. Supp. 3d 758, 768 (W.D. Va. 2017) Even though no building was completely denied here, the Court finds—as did Judge Wiseman of this Court in an earlier case involving Plaintiff and a different municipality—that Defendant’s alleged attempted uses of procedures fall within the definition of “land use regulation” insofar as it constituted the application of a proposed law to restrict Plaintiff’s use or development of land in which it had a leasehold interest. Layman Lessons, Inc. v. City of Millersville, Tenn., 636 F. Supp. 2d 620, 646 (M.D. Tenn. 2008). Thus, the Court finds that RLUIPA applies in this case.”
The Defendant also argued that the RLUIPA claims were moot as the municipality ultimately permitted the use. On that issue, the claim includes a recitation of ongoing obstruction by the Defendant and the fact that the Plaintiff was delayed for a number of months from having the use of its property. Therefore, the Court held:

“There is no evidence before the Court as to what has occurred between these parties since the pending Motions to Dismiss were filed; but based on the alleged repeated problems Plaintiff has encountered and the other allegations of the Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Defendant has continued to obstruct Plaintiff’s religious activities in violation of RLUIPA. Defendant has not shown that the alleged misconduct reasonably cannot be expected to recur or that interim events or relief have completely eradicated the effects of the alleged violations. For example, Defendant might again attempt to stop work on the storage barn or reinstate a demolition order, for what Plaintiff might claim are discriminatory reasons.1

Moreover, Plaintiff’s claim is not moot because, in addition to declaratory and injunctive relief, Plaintiff seeks monetary relief for Defendant’s actions in the past. If a plaintiff’s complaint includes a claim for damages, that claim preserves the plaintiff’s backward-looking right to preserve a live case or controversy over the dispute.”
Defendant also argues that the delays were minimal and therefore there was no substantial burden on PLaintiff’s religious exercise to establish a violation of RLUIPA.  Yet, the Court found:
“Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged, for purposes of a motion to dismiss, that the actions of Defendant—including, but not limited to, Defendant’s issuance of demolition orders, stop work orders, and storm water orders regarding the storage barn; Defendant’s insisting that Plaintiff complete additional repair work and get additional permits than what was previously required; Defendant’s erroneously asserting that a protected stream existed on the property; and Defendant’s erroneously fining Plaintiff for “grading without a permit”—created a “substantial burden” on its free exercise of religion, in violation of RLUIPA.”
Several other claims were dismissed by the Court, finding there were insufficient activities alleged to sustain those claims for various reasons.