On October 28, Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of our client, Hope Rising Community Church, and recommended granting the Church’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction.
The Church is located in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. In August 2014, the Church leased a warehouse building in Penn Hills to use as a house of worship. Soon after the Church leased the warehouse, the property owner submitted an Occupancy Permit application on behalf of the Church to use the warehouse as a house of worship. In September 2014, Penn Hills issued an Occupancy Permit for the warehouse. However, in January 2015, City officials informed the Church it had to stop holding worship services at the warehouse by March 1.
The Penn Hills Zoning Ordinance does not permit churches or religious assemblies as of right in any zoning district, and they are only allowed as a conditional use in the City’s residential districts. The warehouse is in the Light Industrial District, which explicitly permits educational institutions, parks and playgrounds.
On March 9, the Church applied for a variance to allow it to host worship services at the warehouse. On April 22, the Penn Hills Zoning Hearing Board voted unanimously to deny the application. As a result, the Church is prohibited from holding worship services at the warehouse facility. The Church has been forced to hold its services at several alternate locations, which has resulted in a decrease in attendance from 85 members to around 40.
In September, the Church filed suit against Penn Hills, alleging the Zoning Hearing Board decision violates RLUIPA. Soon after, the Church filed a motion for preliminary injunction based on its facial claims brought under RLUIPA’s Equal Terms and Unreasonable Limitations provisions.
In addressing the Church’s motion, the Court determined the Church is likely to succeed on the merits of its facial Equal Terms challenge to the Penn Hills Zoning Ordinance. Citing the Third Circuit decision in Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, the Court noted the relevant standard for an Equal Terms challenge is whether a zoning provision “treats religious assemblies or institutions less well than secular assemblies or institutions that are similarly situated as to the regulatory purpose.” The Court agreed with the Church’s argument that parks, playgrounds and educational institutions qualify as “assemblies” and “institutions” for purposes of a RLUIPA Equal Terms analysis. The Court also found the City failed to show how a religious institution would cause greater harm in the Light Industrial District than parks, playgrounds and educational institutions. As a result, the Court found that the Church will likely succeed on the merits of its facial Equal Terms challenge. The Court also found the Church is suffering irreparable harm because it has been denied its First Amendment right to worship at the warehouse, which has caused a significant decline in its congregation.
The Magistrate Judge’s recommendation now goes to the District Judge for ultimate approval. We will be sure to keep you informed of the District Judge’s decision and any further developments as this litigation proceeds.
Update (January 2016)
Penn Hills appealed the Magistrates decision to the District Court. The Court evaluated and rejected the arguments raised by the municipality. Therefore, the injunction entered allowing the Church to use the property for assembly and worship. Shortly thereafter, the Church and Penn Hill entered into settlement discussions and the case was resolved by allowing the Church to use the property for assembly and worship along with the payment of damages and attorney fees for the Church.
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