Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Second Circuit provides some gloss on religious land-use discrimination claims

Seems like every religious discrimination case involving the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act is overly complex. This case is no different, having taken the Court of Appeals more than a year to decide. The Second Circuit revives a case filed by a Jewish organization in Connecticut that wanted to expand its building.

The case is Chabad Lubavich v. Lichfield Historic District Commission, decided on September 19. Plaintiffs purchased property to serve as its new place of worship. This property is an historic building in what is probably a quaint New England community. They asked Town officials for permission to expand the building to suit their religious needs. Anyone who has sat through planning board meetings knows how complicated the land use process is, and this case was no different. In the end, the Town denied plaintiff's proposed modifications, explaining that they would destroy the residential character of the property's environs. Plaintiffs took their case to court.

Under RLUIPA, the plaintiffs win if planning officials imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise without a compelling interest. If this sounds like a constitutional standard, it is, or at least, it was, before the Supreme Court got rid of it in 1990. RLUIPA was Congress's way of reviving that test in the land-use context. Here are the holdings:

1. The district court (which dismissed the case before trial) misapplied RLUIPA in stating that plaintiffs cannot win without showing the government imposed arbitrary land regulations or standards. Yes, the plaintiff can show the government acted arbitrarily, but it can also win if the government imposed a land use condition that created a substantial religious burden, and if feasible alternatives existed for the religious plaintiffs to meet their needs. So this claim is sent back to the district court to try again,

2. Plaintiffs also bring an "equal terms" claim arising from the municipal denial. The Second Circuit (Livingston, Walker and Chin) says that for plaintiffs to win this claim, they have to show the government imposed conditions or terms that differed from other comparable nonreligious  applications. Plaintiffs argue that a library in the historical district got a better deal from the town in 1965. But the library is not comparable to plaintiff's proposed modifications of the building. Not only was it 50 years ago, but a different land use commission made the decision in that instance. And the size of plaintiffs' modifications are not comparable to what the library did in 1965. That claim fails.

3. RLUIPA also has a non-discrimination provision, requiring that the plaintiff prove intentional discrimination. Courts use Equal Protection case law in resolving these disputes. Under Supreme Court case law, you can show intent if the government deviated from its usual procedures in denying you the benefit, or if added unforeseeable substantive requirements during the process, or if discriminatory impact was foreseeable, or if there was something unusual or strange about the sequence of events that led to the unhappy result. This is all part of the totality of the circumstances test. This claim is returned to the district court to take another crack at this claim.

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