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Court Limits Plaintiff’s Burden in Pleadings in Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act Cases

Court Limits Plaintiff’s Burden in Pleadings in Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act Cases

The Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act of 2000 (42 U.S.C. Section 2000, et. seq.) (“RLUIPA”) protects individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. The law prohibits zoning which burdens the religious exercise of churches and assemblies or institutions unless there is a compelling governmental state interest, but even then, the burden must be the least restrictive burden possible. The RLUIPA applies when the state or local government that imposes the burden 1) receives federal funding, 2) the burden or the removal of the burden would affect interstate commerce, or 3) the substantial burden originates from the government’s formal or informal procedures for making individualized assessments of a property’s uses.

Zoning under the Act is prohibited that 1) treats houses of worship and other institutions on less than equal terms with non-religious institutions, 2) discriminates against any assemblies or institutions on the basis of religion or religious denomination, 3) totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction, or 4) unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions or structures within a jurisdiction. An RLUPIA case can therefore have any one or more of 4 main components:

    • Equal terms,
    • Discrimination,
    • Exclusion, or
    • Unreasonable limitation.

A recent case in the Sixth Circuit involved Equal Terms and Discrimination. Though the Court, in Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor & Vicinity, a/k/a MCA, d/b/a Michigan Islamic Academy, a/k/a MIA v. Pittsfield Charter Township,, Case No. 12-1803 (E.D. Mich.), did not fully adjudicate the case and remanded on mostly procedural grounds, the Court, did make an interesting ruling as to the Plaintiff’s burden in pleading a case for Discrimination under the RLUIPA. In its Motion for Summary Judgment, the Township argued that the Plaintiff had not alleged any facts which asserted that the Township had acted in a discriminatory manner in denying the Plaintiff’s zoning application to construct a Muslim school. The Court cited only one case, Church of Scientology of Georgia v. City of Sandburg, Georgia, 843 F.Supp. 2d, 1328 (N.D. Ga. 2012) in which the Court the court indicated that a plaintiff need only show that a violation of the non-discrimination through indirect evidence or through the establishment of an inference of discrimination. More importantly, the Muslim Community Court drew an analogy to employment discrimination cases where the law is settled that establishing discrimination is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement. The plaintiff has the right to use discovery to establish the existence of the discriminatory conduct. Therefore, the Court denied the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

Going forward, Plaintiffs will have an easier time getting over the initial threshold in establishing a case for discrimination in RLUPIA cases. As many local governments do not like to litigate these cases, this may further encourage early settlement.

David Blattner

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