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Denial of Lighting for Religious School Baseball Field Does Not Violate RLUIPA

Last week the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals denied an action pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) challenging a local law that resulted in a religious school being denied the right to install specific lighting and a sound system for its baseball field. In Marianist Province of the United States; St. John Vianney High School, Inc.  v. City of Kirkwood, the Court held that the local regulations prohibiting spillage of light and sound, beyond certain levels,  into the adjacent neighborhood did not violate RLUIPA.

The high school, which provides religious teachings, has a sports program with a football stadium that contains lighting and a sound system. The baseball stadium did not contain lighting or a sound system.  The local public high school likewise has both football and baseball fields, with the football field having lighting and a sound system and the baseball field lacking both. In 2012 the City adopted local regulations that limited such systems so as to avoid disturbances cause by light spillage and loud sounds into adjacent neighborhoods.

“Vianney began the process of installing lights on its baseball field in late 2014. In 2015, contractors told the school that no lighting configuration could both comply with the lighting regulations and be bright enough to play baseball safely at night. Vianney therefore applied for a variance from the regulations. Kirkwood’s city planner told Vianney it did not need a variance, mistakenly thinking the baseball field already had lights. In October 2015, Vianney submitted a site plan for its improvements to the baseball field, which Kirkwood approved. Vianney then installed the lights at a cost in excess of $235,000. In January 2016, Vianney also installed an updated sound system on its baseball field.

After the lights were installed and tested, neighbors complained. Vianney submitted another site plan in 2016, which the city approved subject to several conditions on the use of the lights and sound system. Vianney took issue with the conditions, claiming they deprived it of all meaningful use of its baseball field at night.

Both Vianney and the local public high school, Kirkwood High School (“KHS”), have football stadiums that are used for other sports, such as soccer, and were equipped with lights and sound systems before 2012. Both parties acknowledge that the city “grandfathered in” the lights on both schools’ football fields after the lighting regulations were adopted, allowing unrestricted use of the lights and sound systems on those fields. Both high schools also have baseball fields that were not equipped with lights before 2012, and KHS has not installed lights on its baseball field.”

Thereafter, an action was commenced in state Court challenging the actions of the City. The City had the case removed to Federal Court. The District Court found in favor of the City and the Circuit Court affirmed.

The Court noted that RLUIPA prohibits regulations that place a substantial burden on religious exercise. However, in the first instance the organization must establish that the regulation places a burden on religious exercise. The Court noted:

“Vianney asserts that various forms of religious exercise ‘motivate the school’s use’ of its baseball field at night. The school emphasizes that athletics is part of the ‘formation of young men’ in the Catholic Marianist tradition and that nighttime sports games allow it to reach out to the community and engage in religious fellowship. RLUIPA broadly defines ‘religious exercise’ to include ‘any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.’ § 2000cc-5(7)(A). Assuming Vianney’s uses of its baseball field at night for forming young men, engaging in religious fellowship, and reaching out to the community constitute religious exercise, we examine its claim that the regulations substantially burden this exercise.”

The Court held that there had been a failure to establish more than an inconvenience and that inconvenience does not establish a substantial burden when there are other options available.

“Vianney also has not shown that its religious exercise will be substantially burdened by being limited to using its baseball field only during daylight hours, as it has for decades. As the district court noted, Vianney has alternative times and locations, such as at its baseball field during the day and its football and soccer facility at night, to carry out its religious mission.”

The School also claimed a RLUIPA violation, as it alleged that it was not treated on equal terms with the public high school. The claim was that the regulations were not applied in the same manner to both schools and therefore the City’s actions discriminated against the religious school. The Court noted:

“… as the district court pointed out, KHS’s football stadium and Vianney’s baseball field were treated differently based not on religious affiliation but on the fact that no lighting regulations existed when KHS’s football lights were installed….both Vianney’s and KHS’s football fields were grandfathered in because both had lighting and sound systems installed before the 2012 lighting regulations were enacted. Kirkwood has not allowed either school to use lights on their baseball fields that exceed the brightness limits set by the regulations because neither Vianney nor KHS had installed lights before 2012. Therefore, the schools have not been treated unequally.”

An additional equal protection claim was based on Missouri law and found to be without merit.

Steven Silverberg