In a recent federal district court decision from New York, a church proposing to purchase property in a light industrial zoning district, sued the city contending that the city violated its rights under RLUIPA by not permitting a church use in that district. The court expressly noted that zoning claims alleging a “substantial burden” were rarely justified. In this case, the fact that there were obvious options for the religious entity, including expansion at its current site, or buying adjacent parcels to its current site and expanding on those parcels, augured against the validity of the claim. As a result, the District Court dismissed the RLUIPA suit. Wesleyan Methodist Church of Canisteo v. Village of Canisteo, 2011 WL 2149444 (W.D.N.Y., 6/1/ 2011)
There are two interesting questions here. First, under Tennessee law, in particular, the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-1-407, would the same result obtain? Remember, under the Tennessee act, the term “substantial burden” is defined to mean anything that “inhibits or curtails” religious practice. Does the failure to permit a church in a light industrial zoning district inhibit or curtail religious practice? I don’t know. One of these days we may find out.
The second interesting point here is to contrast this case with a case from California decided recently. In that case, the Ninth Circuit found a violation of RLUIPA where a light industrial zoning district did not permit the religious activities, but there was testimony from a realtor demonstrating that there was little or no other choice for location of the church. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v City of San Leandro, 2011 WL 505028 (9th Cir. 2/15/2011).
I think probably there was a distinct difference in judicial attitude towards the religious land uses involved between the New York and California district courts, but certainly the lack of any options in California made the case much easier. It would appear clear that under the Tennessee act, if there are no other real options for the church, there would also be a violation of the Tennessee act, as well as possibly the federal act.