Recent cases show communities rarely win when they choose to battle RLUIPA in court
Based on the outcomes of similar cases, the Genoa Township Board could end up paying millions in settlements and legal fees if it chooses to fight a federal lawsuit filed by Livingston Christian Schools.
Genoa Township was hit by a federal lawsuit on Friday, filed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was unanimously passed by Congress in 2000 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The lawsuit was filed Friday at U.S. District Court in Detroit, and asks for Livingston Christian Schools to be able to move into its new home at the Brighton Nazarene Church.
In a similar RLUIPA case in Greenburgh, N.Y., decided in 2013, the local community had to pay $6.5 million in damages to the Fortress Bible Church after denying the church the right to erect a 500-seat chapel and 150-student school on property it owned. The town of Greenburgh fought the case for a decade before losing in court. Insurance only covered $1 million of the settlement, so taxpayers were on the hook for the remaining $5.5 million, which is still being paid out in installments.
Greenburgh is not alone. Other communities have had to pay large legal bills and settlements after losing RLUIPA lawsuits:
• The Village of Mamaroneck, N.Y., paid out $4.75 million to the Westchester Hebrew Day School in 2008 after denying the construction of a new school building. The village also had to pay more than $900,000 in legal fees. The village ended up having to raise taxes 4.3 percent to pay for the settlement.
• The Village of Airmont, N.Y., paid out more than $450,000 in legal fees in a losing battle to keep a Jewish congregation from building a school with accessory housing for Hasidic Jewish men. The village eventually settled the lawsuit and agreed to let the project move forward.
• The Township of Bridgewater, N.J., had to pay nearly $8 million in 2014 to settle a lawsuit filed by the Al Fatah Center’s proposal to construct a mosque.
Going against the recommendation of its own planning commission, the Genoa Township Board voted 4-3 at two meetings to deny a special use permit to the Brighton Nazarene Church to house Livingston Christian Schools. The most recent vote came on Aug. 3.
The board’s decision affected two schools, Livingston Christian Schools and Light of the World Academy. Light of the World Academy, a K-6 Montessori school that’s converting from a private school to a public school, had been planning to move into Livingston Christian’s old building in Pinckney. Following the township board’s action, the fate of both schools is up in the air with the start of school approaching.
With the filing of Friday’s lawsuit, though, both schools have new life. Roger L. Myers, attorney for the school, told the Livingston Daily Press & Argus that he will be filing to get an expedited hearing on the case in the next 10 days to two weeks, because there is little time before school is scheduled to begin.
The federal Religious Land Use law states that government cannot impose “a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” unless it can show “a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means.”
“The township’s decision to deny the school’s special use permit did not advance any compelling government interest,” Myers told Livingston Daily. “What is even clearer is that, even if there were a compelling interest, there was no factual basis to support the township’s decision.”