Church’s request for preliminary injunction under RLUIPA fails

by Allison Arends

River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest
(Federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, October 27, 2009)

The River of Life Kingdom ministries, a nonprofit religious organization, attempted to move the location of its congregation from a warehouse in Chicago Heights to Village of Hazel Crest. The church stated that its main objective in choosing the Village, which had been in serious economic decline since the 1990s, was to promote its mission of promoting literacy, empowering communities, developing leaders, transforming economic conditions, and improving life, health, and safety for local citizens in this particular struggling community.  The property purchased by the church was in a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district established to “provide an attractive commercial area that enhances the regional image of Hazel Crest.”  The zoning ordinance that controlled the TIF district was “Service Business District” and authorized commercial uses for the property but excluded religious services except by special use permit.  The church, expecting to receive a special use permit from the Village, bought the property regardless of the specific provisions of the zoning ordinance.  The Village denied the church’s request for a special use permit.

The church filed a complaint in which alleged that the Village’s ordinance violated the 1st Amendment, the Equal Protection clause, and the Substantial Burden and Equal Terms Provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). While the motion for preliminary judgement was pending before the court, the Village changed the zoning ordinance to also exclude other forms of assemblies such as community centers, non-religious schools, meeting halls etc. This change in the ordinance was the Village’s attempt to conform to the provisions of RLUIPA. The district court rejected the church’s request for preliminary injunction and the church appealed. The issue of this appeal to the Seventh Circuit revolves around the equal terms provisions set out in RLUIPA and whether the Village violated those provisions.  RLUIPA states;

“No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that greats a religious assemblyor institution less than equal terms with a non-religious assembly or institution.” 42 U.S.C. 2000cc(b)(1)

The Seventh Circuit was given the task of reviewing the district court’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction.  To obtain a preliminary injunction, the church was required to show (1) the church was likely to succeed on the merits of the case, and (2) the harm to the church that would come without the injunction would outweigh the harm done to the Village if the injunction were granted.  

As to the first requirement of awarding a preliminary injunction, the court evaluated whether the church was likely to win on the merits of the case.  The church argued that the Village’s ordinance violates RLUIPA in the fact that laws must treat religious and non-religious assemblies on equal terms.  The interpretation and application of the equal terms provision of RLUIPA was a matter not previously addressed by the Seventh Circuit.  The Seventh Circuit looked to conflicting interpretations by the Eleventh and Third Circuits for guidance.  

The Eleventh Circuit court used the natural meaning of “assembly” from the dictionary to determine that private clubs and lodges were assemblies similarly situated to churches and synagogues, therefore only looked at the definition of assembly to determine whether there was a violation of RLUIPA. This logic, applied to the present case, would most likely find the Village’s ordinance in violation of RLUIPA.

The Third Circuit court, however, not only takes into account the definition of assembly but analyzes the intent of the Village’s ordinance to determine its neutrality. The Third Circuit evaluated the objectives of the ordinance by determining the principles of neutrality that The Supreme Court established in Employment Div. Dept. of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1990) The Supreme Court found that, “the right of free exercise of religion does not require the courts to invalidate neutral laws of general applicability.” The principles of neutrality find an ordinance discriminatory 1.) if it refers to a religious practice without a secular meaning discernible from the language or context and 2.) if its object is to suppress religious practice. Based on these principles the court argues that,

“facial differentiation between religious and non-religious institutions alone was insufficient to demonstrate that the ordinance was non-neutral. Only when the institutions had the same effect on the city’s objectives was the regulation discriminatory.”

The court noted that the Eleventh Circuit court’s rationale would, “significantly expand the scope of local ordinances implicated under RLUIPA. There is no shortage of hypotheticals demonstrating the dangers of such an expansive reading of the Equal Terms provision.” and that, “if used would significantly impede the ability of local governments to pass legislation that place incidental burdens on any religious practice.” The court finds that the proper interpretation of “less than equal” lies within the Third Circuit’s decision because they found it is, “more consistent with Congress’s intent and with the case law interpreting the Free Exercise Clause.”

The court then went on to evaluate the other issue in the question of preliminary injunction. The court was challenged with deciding whether the Church will suffer irreparable harm if it is not allowed to relocate immediately, and if so, whether it exceeds the harm an injunction would cause to the Village. Because the court cannot presume that RLUIPA and First Amendment violations are one and the same, the Church must explain how the inability to relocate to the Village’s TIF District inhibits its religious exercise (irreparable harm). The Church attempts to argue that its mission is directly tied to the specific location. The court recognizes the possible harm this may cause to the Church, but the court goes on to explain that it must use a “sliding scale” approach in evaluating the harm to both parties. Because it has been determined the Church will most likely lose in the merits of the case, the Church must show their harm significantly outweighs the harm to the Village. The court finds that allowing the church to locate to this district would be incompatible with the Village’s development plan and recognizes that, “uncertainty over the Village’s ability to enforce its zoning ordinance, or the future direction of the community, would likely compromise this goal in the future… presenting a significant but unquantifiable threat to the village’s redevelopment plan.” The court concludes that the Church’s harm does not significantly outweigh that of the Village. The judgement of the district court is affirmed.

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