6th Circuit boomerangs RLUIPA and related claims back to district court

by Kaitlin Heinen

Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 6, 2013)

Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased property in Upper Arlington, intending to open a private school that would consolidate its campuses. However, the property is located in the City’s Office and Research (ORC) zoning district, in which neither churches nor schools are allowed. Tree of Life unsuccessfully applied for a conditional use permit and unsuccessfully appealed to the Board of Zoning and Planning (BZAP) and the City Council. Upper Arlington uses what is known as ‘non-cumulative’ zoning, in which only building use categories that are designated as permissive uses are allowed as of right, and all other uses are either expressly listed as “conditional uses,” requiring a special permit, or are prohibited entirely.

Tree of Life filed a complaint in district court, alleging religious-based discrimination under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Tree of Life filed four claims, which included “facial and as-applied ‘equal terms’ claims alleging that the City’s land use ordinance violates 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1) by treating the School on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions, and facial and as-applied ‘substantial burden’ claims alleging that the ordinance violates 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1) by imposing substantial burden on its religious exercise without a compelling government interest.” In addition, “Tree of Life…brought six constitutional claims alleging violations of the rights to free exercise, due process, equal protection, free speech, peaceable assembly; and a violation of the establishment Clause; as well as a claim under the Ohio Constitution.”

The district court ruled in favor of the City because the claims raised were not ripe as a result of Tree of Life not seeking a zoning amendment. Tree of Life appealed, “arguing that the claims are all ripe because the zoning ordinance was finally applied to it when BZAP and the City Council made a final determination that a private Christian School is a non-permitted use under the ordinance.” Tree of Life also argued because their equal terms claims are facial claims, they are not subject to the ripeness doctrine. The City countered that the claims are not ripe because an attempted zoning amendment is uncertain as it is a legislative process.

The court held that “[i]nsofar as Tree of Life alleges a facial claim, however, we have doubts as to its validity because the face of the statute appears to be neutral as to non-Church religious uses. We leave this issue to the district court.” The court also held that in Miles Christi Religious Order v. Township of Northville, the plaintiff’s claim challenging a zoning ordinance was not ripe “because the plaintiff did not seek a variance from the zoning board, and thus the zoning board had not reached a final decision regarding the property. However, the court declined to rule on “whether the holding in Miles Christi covers situations where the plaintiff did not seek a zoning amendment because new information has come to light.” Tree of Life filed a motion to supplement the record because “[w]hile this case was pending, Tree of Life indeed sought a zoning amendment, which the City Council voted to deny. Based on this change of circumstances, the present arguments before this panel are no longer sufficient.” The court remanded this issue to the district court.

Tree of Life also argued that the district court ruled on the merits of the RLUIPA equal terms claim.  However, the court determined “[t]his language [as] dicta, and it does not include an analysis…of any other claim on the merits.” So it is not construed as a separate holding. If the district court determines that this case is ripe on remand, the court left the district court “to rule on the merits of each claim in the first instance.” Finally, the City cross-appealed, asking for a reversal of the district court’s denial of the City’s summary judgment motion on the merits, even though it argued that the court did not have jurisdiction under the final judgment rule to consider its cross-appeal. “The [final judgment] rule is that a party is entitled to a single appeal, to be deferred until final judgment has been entered, in which claims of district court error at any stage of the litigation may be ventilated.” Even so, the court dismissed the cross-appeal because it does not issue advisory opinions. The court held “[t]hese issues are best left to the district court.”

The Federal 6th Circuit Court granted Tree of Life’s motion to supplement the record, reversed and remanded this case to the district court on the issue of ripeness in light of new information, and dismissed the City’s cross-appeal.

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