On November 25, 2014, District Judge Timothy Corrigan from the Middle District of Florida ruled in favor of Church of Our Savior in its religious land use lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The Court held that the City violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause when it twice denied conditional use permit applications submitted by the Church to operate in a residential zone, but granted permits for a Montessori school to operate in the same zone. The court had previously denied the City of Jacksonville Beach’s Motion to Dismiss the Church’s complaint, finding the Church had pleaded sufficient facts to allow the case against the City to move forward.
The Church of Our Savior was founded in 2006 and has since grown to its current size of roughly 110 church members and weekly parishioners. The Church’s religious mission is to revel in and share the grace that God has shown them. In order to do so, the Church encourages members of the community to attend the Church’s religious services and make “disciples in all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” Matthew 28: 19-20 (Common English Bible) As a result, over the past seven years, the Church has seen substantial growth that has led the Church’s leadership, known as the Vestry, to add a number of services, including Bible study groups for both men and women. The Church has also established local ministries of feeding the homeless at the City’s Mission House, and supported the teachers and staff at a nearby public elementary school.
The Church’s service to the City and the quality and range of its ministries has resulted in growth of its membership to the point that the Church is now in dire need of its own sanctuary to fulfill its mission and ministry. Additionally, in May 2013, Church of Our Savior merged with Resurrection Anglican Church, which had held worship services at a number of locations around Jacksonville Beach since 2006. The Church currently hosts two worship services on Sunday mornings at Beaches Museum Chapel, 505 Beach Blvd., in Jacksonville Beach. Beaches Museum Chapel is a historic wooden chapel that has been moved to multiple locations over the years. The Church of Our Savior rents the chapel from the City of Jacksonville Beach Historical Society on a six month rolling lease for four (4) hours a week in order to hold its services. Because of the lease arrangement, the Church cannot schedule services as it wishes, nor can it make repairs or alter the chapel in order to tailor the facility to the Church’s religious needs.
Plaintiff’s administrative offices and limited meeting rooms are located across the street from the Museum in mobile home, known as Malone Hall, which Plaintiff has leased from another entity. Due to space and the four hour weekly time constraints and conflicts, Plaintiff hosts its men’s bible study every Tuesday morning at Colonel Mustard’s, a popular hamburger restaurant in Jacksonville Beach. Additionally, Plaintiff hosts other religious and social church activities at other local restaurants and the homes of members of the congregation due to the lack of time to use the facility. The Church hosts a Friday bible study for women weekly choir rehearsals and other educational activities at Malone Hall.
The Church suffers an increasingly substantial burden on its religious exercise due to the limited four hour time and space in the currently rented chapel and temporary support building, as well as the substantial time needed to deploy and redeploy materials from Malone Hall to the chapel to support weekly services. Additionally, classes for adults and children are severely limited due to four hour time limit and inadequate available facilities to support them. The Church must have weddings and funerals at locations other than at the chapel due to the unavailability of the chapel and that it falls outside the four hour weekly time limit on the building.
Such size limitations and the resulting logistical time issues have hindered the Church’s ability to attract more members, an integral part of the Church’s religious mission, due to the varying locations and the lack of its own permanent house of worship. The Church Vestry eventually determined that locating the vast majority of the Church’s religious worship activities at one house of worship would ease the substantial time and financial burdens that weigh on the shoulders of the Church Vestry and parishioners due to the constant changing of meeting locations the Church and its members have had to endure for several years. Thus, Church leaders looked for a suitable property that could serve as the one ideal location for all of the Church’s religious activities.
THE PROPERTY AND THE CITY LAND DEVELOPMENT CODE
In early 2012, the Church located the property at 2092 Beach Boulevard (“Property”) in Jacksonville Beach that was for sale. The Property consists of two parcels of land, each owned by a different person or entity, that are separated by a small piece of city-owned property. The Property is located off of the six-lane Beaches Boulevard just east of Hopson Road and the Intracoastal Waterway and on the west side of Adventure Landing, an amusement park that offers water attractions, miniature golf and laser tag. The Property is bisected in the rear by a City of Jacksonville Beach sewage pump station.
The Church desires to build a 7,400-square foot, one-story building that would include a sanctuary with space for more than 200 worshipers on the northern parcel of the Property. The southern part of the Property was expected to be used for other Church activities, including a children’s play area or park. Church leaders anticipate that having one location where all Church activities could be hosted would likely increase church attendance and lessen the substantial burden Church members are under in having to shuffle from one location to another to hold various services, as the Church does now.
Thus, the Church purchased an option to buy the Property from the owners. The Property is the only available land in the City of Jacksonville Beach that could accommodate the Church’s needs of a space for both a religious worship facility and a nearby outdoor recreational area. The Property, originally zoned commercial, is presently zoned “RS-1”, or residential.
The Property is the only such property located in Jacksonville Beach off of Beach Boulevard zoned RS-1. The property in question cannot be reasonably, or feasibly, be developed for single family commercial as it is adjacent to a six land highway, an amusement park, a city sewer lift station.
CHURCH OF OUR SAVIOR APPLIES FOR A CUP
The City of Jacksonville Beach Land Development Code allows secular assembly uses, such as public and private parks, as a matter of right in RS-1 zoning districts. However, religious assembly is excluded in the RS-1 zoning district unless approved by the City Planning Commission through a discretionary Conditional Use Permit.
The City of Jacksonville Beach Planning Commission is composed of a group of unelected citizens who do not have any experience in land use, zoning, building or related skills and trades. The City of Jacksonville Beach Planning Commission has a history of allowing secular and other religious denominations to obtain Conditional Use Permits for both religious and non-religious assembly uses in RS-1 zoning districts. Since 2004, the City Planning Commission has approved all Conditional Use Permits that have secured recommendations of approval from the City of Jacksonville Beach Planning Department.
On or about March 1, 2013, the Church submitted an application to the City for a CUP to build the church at the Property. The application indicated that the Church sought a CUP to operate a 200-250 seat religious assembly and park in the RS-1 zoning district on the Property it has an option to purchase. The City’s Department of Planning and Development affirmed the receipt of the Church’s application and verified that the application met all of the City’s mandated standards for conditional use approval under Section § 34.336(e) of the Code.
In particular, the City of Jacksonville Beach Planning Department determined that the Church’s plan conformed with the RS-1 setback requirements, included the required landscape and fence buffer adjacent to single-family uses, and the City’s Public Works Department was aware of the Church’s plans and found it would not interfere with works department maintenance.
Thus, the City Planning and Development Department recommended that the Planning Commission approve the CUP to the Church. Additionally, the Planning and Development Department found that the church use “represents a reasonable low intensity use of the undeveloped parcels…and would serve as transition between the soon to be developed commercial parking facilities to the east, and the Hopson Road neighborhood to the west and south.”
The City’s Planning Commission heard the Church’s Conditional Use Permit application at a public hearing on April 8, 2013. The Planning Commission voted unanimously (5-0) to deny the Conditional Use Permit requested by the Church.
THE SECOND CUP APPLICATION
The Church and the City attempted to find a mutually suitable way for the Church to be able to move forward with its project on the Property. When those efforts failed to reach a mutually agreeable resolution, the City encouraged the Church to submit a second application for a CUP in September 2013.
Thus, the Church submitted a second application for a CUP to the City’s Planning and Development Department. The second CUP made clear that the Church planned to make a park open to neighborhood children and permitted in the RS-1 zoning classification. The Planning Commission discussed the second CUP application at a meeting on September 9, 2013.
Once again, the Church met all the standards for conditional use approval. The City Planning and Development Department recommended the Planning Commission approve the CUP. In particular;
“The Planning and Development Department found that the church use “represents a reasonable low intensity use of the undeveloped parcels…and would serve as transition between the soon to be developed commercial parking facilities to the east, and the Hopson Road neighborhood to the west and south.”
The Planning and Development Department had also found that the Church’s “requested use of the subject properties is contemplated in RS-1 zoning, so it is not inconsistent with their Comprehensive Plan Residential – Low Density designation.”
Nonetheless, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the CUP for the Church. The Church has availed itself of and exhausted all of the administrative remedies set forth in the City’s Land Use Code without success, as the decision of the City’s Planning Commission is final and not appealable. The denial of the Church’s CUP applications effectively denies the Church the right to meet and assemble for religious purposes on the Property. Additionally, there are no ready alternatives for the Church, as there are no other parcels of property available in the City’s C-1 and C-2 zoning districts which meet the Church’s needs.
Thus, the Church will continue to have to rotate its locations between a rented public chapel and the back of a hamburger restaurant now that it will not be allowed to build its own structure within which to hold religious assemblies and exercise. The Church had no choice but to file suit against the City to seek permission to build its new worship facility.
The Church brought its claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). There are four types of claims available under RLUIPA which restrict how government regulations may intersect with religious exercise: substantial burden claims, equal terms claims, nondiscrimination claims, and exclusions and limits claims. The Church brought all four types of claims.
THE CHURCH PREVAILS ON THE CITY’S MOTION TO DISMISS
After various pre-trial motions, the City submitted a Motion to Dismiss the Church’s Complaint for failure to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. In order to survive such a motion, the Church was required to show that it had pleaded “factual content which allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” The court found that the Church and its attorneys had indeed done so.
The first claim that the City sought to dismiss was the Church’s substantial burden claim. The City argued that neither its requirement to apply for a CUP nor its denials of the Church’s applications for a CUP were a substantial burden on the Church. However, the court pointed out that the Church is not actually arguing that the CUP requirement is a substantial burden. Further, the court noted that there is surely some type of burden on the Church, and whether that amounts to a legally “substantial” burden under RLUIPA is a matter for trial. Thus, the court correctly denied the City’s request to dismiss the Church’s substantial burden claim.
Next, the City sought to dismiss the Church’s equal terms claim. The equal terms provision prohibits treating a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution. The City sought to dismiss this claim by attempting to argue the Church could not identify any secular assemblies or institutions that received better treatment than the Church. The City made this argument in part by trying to distinguish the Church’s supporting caselaw. The court rejected the City’s arguments and found that the Church had pleaded enough proper facts to make the issue of secular comparators one to be decided at trial. Thus, the court correctly denied the City’s request to dismiss the Church’s equal terms claims.
Finally, the City sought to dismiss the Church’s nondiscrimination and unreasonable limitations claims. On both of these claims, the City attempted to argue that the Church had not pleaded the facts necessary to make out a successful claim. On both counts, the court disagreed. The court concluded that the Church had pleaded facts that could plausibly entitle it to relief from the court. The court concluded that there were enough factual and legal questions present to make trial of these issues appropriate. Thus, the court correctly denied the City’s request to dismiss the Church’s nondiscrimination and unreasonable limitations claims.
While the Church prevailed on the Motion to Dismiss, the victory is only a temporary one. The Church and its attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC are now preparing for a trial of these issues in front of the Honorable Judge Timothy J. Corrigan. Trial is set to begin on September 2, 2014.
*Despite prevailing on the Motion to Dismiss, the Church has since elected to voluntarily dismiss its Nondiscrimination claim only.