Livingston Christian fights back, files appeal of federal lawsuit

Livingston Christian Schools is fighting back.

LCS, a K-12 Christian school which is hoping to move into the Brighton Nazarene Church, has filed an appeal of the dismissal of its federal lawsuit against Genoa Township. LCS sued the township in United States District Court in Detroit last year as a result of the township’s denial of the permit to allow LCS to move its Christian-based school into the Naz. The Genoa Township Board voted against the school despite its Planning Commission overwhelmingly recommending in favor of it.

LCS’s complaint alleged that the Township violated LCS’s rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the United States Constitution.

LCS attorney Roger Myers said the decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh to dismiss the RLUIPA lawsuit wasn’t supported by established case law. As a result, LCS is appealing to the Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio. Myers is confident that LCS will prevail at the appellate court level.

“In his decision, the District Court judge relied on an unpublished opinion that is contrary to published cases in other circuits in the United States that have analyzed the ‘substantial burden’ issue, and the district court’s application of that unpublished opinion to the facts of this case is clearly contrary to the Congressional legislative history of RLUIPA,” Myers explained.

The District Court denied LCS’s request to declare that the township’s actions violated LCS’s rights under RLUIPA. Instead, the court granted the township’s request to dismiss LCS’s Complaint exclusively on the basis that the existence of LCS’s former location in Pinckney and its temporary occupation of the former Whitmore Lake Middle School during the pendency of the lawsuit constituted ‘ready alternatives’ which prevented LCS from proving the existence of a “substantial burden” caused by the township’s wrongful actions.”

Myers added: “LCS is very confident that the Sixth Circuit will reverse the judge’s decision regarding the absence of a substantial burden on LCS, at which point the absurdity of the grounds on which the Township based its denial will be fully exposed and result in a finding that the Township violated LCS’s federally protected rights.”

Because LCS’s claim was dismissed on the limited basis of an absence of a substantial burden, the court declined to analyze the lack of justification for and invalidity of the township’s actions in denying the permit.

The appeal will be decided by the Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals, which is based in Cincinnati and decides all federal appeals arising out of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Myers said the Sixth Circuit has never analyzed the “substantial burden” issue under RLUIPA through a published opinion that is binding precedent on the federal trial courts in the Sixth Circuit region.

The case caused a major furor last summer because the board’s curious decision affected not just one school, but two. Light of the World Academy, a private Montessori school that was hoping to move into Livingston Christian’s old location in Pinckney as it converted to a charter school, was in danger of not being able to open if LCS didn’t have a new place to go. Dozens of parents, students and teachers from both schools pleaded with the board last summer to reconsider its vote, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

The board then doubled down on its battle to keep the Christian school out of the township when it decided to vigorously fight LCS’ lawsuit. The Livingston Christian situation has become a major issue in the Aug. 2 Republican primary election, as the board members who are leading the fight against the school – notably supervisor candidate and current Trustee Linda Rowell, Trustee Todd Smith and Clerk Polly Skolarus – have found themselves under attack for their actions. All three could be turned out by voters on Aug. 2.

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