SCENARIO: Real Life Ministries (“RLM”) is a Christian ministry that had been located and operating in Albion, Michigan, for fifteen years. In 2010, RLM developed plans to purchase a large vacant building that formerly housed an Asian furniture store that was located in rural Parma Township, Michigan (the “Township”). The building was located in the Township’s general Commercial zone, which did not allow religious uses. Recent amendments to the Township’s zoning ordinances rezoned the building to Commercial from Agricultural, which did permit religious uses within its district. Unfortunately, the agricultural areas within the Township were fully developed and thus RLM did not have the option of operating in an agricultural zone.
RESOLUTION: In an attempt to resolve RLM’s land use issues with the Township without having to resort to litigation, Dalton & Tomich attorney Daniel P. Dalton approached the Township’s Supervisor about the possibility of amicably resolving the situation. Mr. Dalton explained the various concerns the Township’s ordinance raised. Such concerns included potentially unconstitutional restrictions on RLM’s free exercise, free speech, and free assembly rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution based on the ordinance’s specific ban on “religious institutions” operating in the commercial zone. The ordinance also raised serious concerns under RLUIPA. It potentially violated the substantial burden provision based on its restriction on religious uses in certain zones. The ordinance also potentially violated the equal terms provision because it treated secular entities, e.g. food services, recreational services, bowling alleys, and roller and ice rinks, on different terms than it treated religious assemblies.
Mr. Dalton also noted to the Township’s Supervisor that concerns about loss of tax revenue is not considered a compelling interest under RLUIPA to allow a municipality to treat a tax-exempt religious entity differently than it would a secular organization.
In response, the Township’s Supervisor promptly responded and indicated the Township recognized that its zoning ordinances violated RLUIPA with respect to religious institutions. As a result, the Township voluntarily agreed to allow RLM to operate as a religious assembly within its commercial district.
The Real Life Ministries case serves as an example of an amicable, quick resolution between a religious institution and a municipality that is aware of the various challenges it faces at trial. Parma Township’s eagerness to settle the matter demonstrates that religious land use cases do not always have to result in complicated, time-consuming litigation matters, but often can be resolved through the slight compromise of municipalities.