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Temples, Churches and Other Religious Organizations Win Civil Rights Lawsuits Against Local Communities

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on February 24, 2011 Category: Firm News, RLUIPA

Bloomfield Hills, MICH. – A Hindu faith community based near Philadelphia is among the latest in a trend toward growing numbers of religious organizations successfully defending constitutionally granted civil rights in a land use case against a United States municipality. The Adhi Parasakthi Charitable, Medical, Educational, and Cultural Society of North America, also known as ACMEC, saw its nearly two-year-long legal battle end Feb. 8, 2011.

A court order issued on that date allows ACMEC to build a 27,000-square-foot temple in West Pikeland Township, Penn. as had been mandated by ACMEC’s faith through its Guru, believed by the organization to be a living deity. The Township had previously denied ACMEC’s petition to build the temple as it proposed.

A review of six additional recent cases coinciding with this trend may be found below, with additional information available at https://www.attorneysforlanduse.com.

Anatomy of a Two-Year Battle

The Hindu organization filed suit against the West Pikeland Township on April 17, 2009 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania after undergoing what it deemed unfair and unconstitutional treatment regarding a petition to build the temple on property it owned in the Township. The suit alleged violations of U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Despite un-rebutted testimony heard by the Supervisors of West Pikeland Township in nine separate conditional use hearings concerning the religious necessity of the temple size, the Township informed ACMEC it could worship in only a 5,000-square-foot building and imposed numerous other limitations on the property.

ACMEC proposed the 27,000-square-foot facility after determining this to be the appropriate size to accommodate the number of deities its guru required be present in the temple for worship. In reaching its conclusion regarding how ACMEC could worship, the Township effectively denied the temple construction. The decision resulted in a substantial burden on the religious exercise of ACMEC’s congregants.

Precedents Set Across the Country

Attorney and noted religious land use expert Daniel Dalton of Dalton & Tomich, PLC represented ACMEC in the case. He notes an increase in the number of faith-based organizations, spanning multiple religions, electing to take their claims of unconstitutional land use restrictions to the courts.

“In difficult economic times, city and other municipal decision makers can be tempted to favor tax-generating property development plans over uses that call for the construction of tax exempt temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and other centers for worship,” Dalton said. “That is a violation of the religious organization’s civil rights under the First Amendment and a violation of RLUIPA. While property tax revenues remain low, we’re likely to see a continued increase in this behavior from municipalities across the country.”

ACMEC joins a growing number of religious organizations successfully defending civil rights in land use disputes.

In a case that was sent back to district court in February 2011, International Four Square ministries purchased a building in 2006 within the commercial area of San Leandro, Cali. to be used for religious worship. The City denied the church the ability to use the building and subsequently, the church lost the building due to lack of financing. The church sued the City of San Leandro, alleging that the City effectively excluded religious organizations from using properties within its boundaries for religious uses. The church also alleged the onerous zoning restrictions became a substantial burden to the religious needs of the faith community. The federal district court rejected the argument and dismissed the claim. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, unanimously reversed the decision, concluding the City was wrong in zoning the church out of the community.

  • A federal court’s consent judgment in December 2010 allowed the Michigan congregation of Salvation Temple Church to worship freely in a building the church had purchased from the City of Hazel Park, Mich. in 2009. Hazel Park’s zoning commission had issued an ordinance illegally excluding any new religious institution from opening in the City.
  • In November 2010, Real Life Ministries of Adrian, Mich. sought to purchase a former furniture store and convert it into a worship facility. As the Township had no property within its boundaries zoned for religious worship, Real Life Ministries sent a detailed letter to the Township expressing concerns over this violations of the religious organization’s civil rights. After receiving the letter, the Township voted in December 2010 to permit Real Life Ministries to use the building for religious services, thus avoiding a lawsuit.
  • In the largest religious land use settlement in the history of the state, the city of Bellmead, Texas came to an agreement in September 2009 with the Church of the Open Door, providing the church all necessary permits and variances and a $550,000 cash award. The city had denied the church’s request to use property it owned as a religious ministry dedicated to helping men transition from incarceration to society.
  • In October 2008, Carlinville Southern Baptist Church won a landmark case in Carlinville, Ill., securing the rights to a former Wal-Mart building the church had purchased. In the settlement, the church was granted the right to use the property for religious services and secured a cash award of $165,000.
  • In June 2008, Celebration Community Church settled a lawsuit with the city of Muskegon, Mich. out of court. The church secured a special land use permit, allowing full use of the building it owned for religious services and reimbursement for some of its legal fees.

All of the religious entities in these cases were represented by noted religious land use expert Daniel Dalton of Dalton, Tomich & Pensler, plc. Dalton focuses his practice on representing religious entities throughout the United States.

Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000 to address local government discrimination in land use applications submitted by religious organization and in doing so, leveled the playing field for religious uses and secular uses.

 

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