In yet another victory for religious land use freedom, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a federal district court in Mississippi abused its discretion when it denied a church’s motion for a preliminary injunction in an action brought under the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
In Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, the City sought to enforce a zoning ordinance which “explicitly singled out churches for unfavorable treatment.” The Opulent Life Church, a small but growing church, sought to acquire space for a new worship center since its current place of worship could not accommodate a sufficient number of worshipers. The church also wished to have space to conduct various ministry activities including Vacation Bible School and Movies in the Park.
The church soon found an acceptable facility in Holly Springs’ central business district. The church signed a lease agreement whereby the lease would commence when the church obtained the required land use and building permits from the City. The church submitted all proper paperwork to the City but the City refused to approve the permits because it claimed the church did not meet the requirements of the City’s zoning ordinance regarding churches. Among other things, the ordinance required churches to be subject to the approval of neighboring property owners, the mayor, and the board. Churches were the only use subject to this requirement.
The church brought suit in federal court alleging violations of RLUIPA and the Constitution. The church filed a motion for a preliminary injunction along with its complaint. The motion for the preliminary injunction sought to prevent the City from enforcing the discriminatory zoning ordinance. The district court denied the motion for preliminary injunction and concluded that the church had not shown a “substantial threat of irreparable harm.” The judge issued this opinion before the City had even responded to the church’s motion.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and found that the church had indeed shown a “substantial threat of irreparable harm.” The court came to this conclusion based largely upon the church’s claims under the First Amendment of the Constitution and RLUIPA. In one notable passage the court said: “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” The court also included the following language: “When an alleged deprivation of a constitutional right is involved, most courts hold that no further showing of irreparable injury is necessary” [for purposes of an injunction]. The court also said: “Opulent Life has alleged violations of its First Amendment and RLUIPA rights and thereby satisfied the irreparable injury requirement.” The Fifth Circuit ultimately remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
This case is significant because it further reinforces the high regard that religious land use rights enjoy under RLUIPA and the Constitution. Depravation of these rights is a serious and harm indeed both under the law and in reality. This case also shows that in many courts, a preliminary injunction can be a powerful tool in a RLUIPA or Constitutional case. Each case must be analyzed on its own, but given the right situation, injunctive relief may be available to a religious institution in a land use case.
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