Last week, the district court for the Western District of Washington in Victory Center v. City of Kelso addressed a RLUIPA challenge to newly passed zoning regulations that prohibited Victory Center from operating an educational and cultural center in an area newly designated for pedestrian retail businesses.
The Victory Center is a Christian-based educational and cultural organization associated with the Kelso Church of Truth. In 2009, the City updated its zoning ordinances in an attempt to create a more pedestrian-friendly retail area. The new ordinance prohibited, inter alia, operating a religious facility in the new four-block pedestrian retail area. In 2010, Victory Center found a possible location for its new premises in a former martial arts studio located in the newly rezoned area. Before executing the lease, the City’s Director of Community Development notified Victory Center of the new zoning regulations that prohibited operating a religious facility in the new zone. Soon after, the Victory Center signed a lease for the location.
A few months after the lease was executed, the City issued Victory Center a Notice of Zoning Ordinance Violation. Victory Center responded by noting that it was a cultural and educational center, not a church, and thus it fit within the new regulations. Ultimately the City concluded that Victory Center served as a community center, which was a prohibited use under the new zoning regulations. In response, Victory Center filed suit alleging sixteen violations of RLUIPA and various constitutional provisions, and the City moved for summary judgment on all counts.
With respect to Victory Center’s RLUIPA claims, the district court determined that the City’s zoning ordinances did not impose a substantial burden on the Center’s religious exercise. Since the new pedestrian-friendly area only occupied four blocks of the City, which amounted to only one-eighth of one percent of City land, the court found that Victory Center could move its facility and successfully operate anywhere outside those four blocks. While the court acknowledged Victory Center’s “inconvenience” for not being able to operate in that four-block area, but clarified that “inconvenience” is not synonymous with a “substantial burden” for purposes of RLUIPA.
The court allowed Victory Center’s claim under RLUIPA’s equal terms provision to proceed to trial. The court addressed the restrictions on religious organizations as compared to their “secular competitors,” which under the new ordinance included community centers, recreation facilities, and educational or cultural facilities. The regulations also included an exemption for “educational, cultural, or governmental uses,” but did not define the terms. This ambiguity, along with the City’s failure to justify its treating Victory Center differently than other nonretail educational and cultural uses, left open genuine issues of material fact as to whether Victory Center was treated on less than equal terms with secular organizations that could locate in the new pedestrian area.
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