This post was originally authored by Evan J. Seeman of Robinson & Cole LLP on the RLUIPA Defense blog. We have re-posted it here with permission. The original post can be found here. Any views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, P.C.
Last year, we reported about a case in which the city of St. Michael, Minnesota utilized RLUIPA’s “safe harbor” provision to avoid liability under the act’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions. While the federal court found for the city as to Riverside Church’s RLUIPA claims at the summary judgment stage, the court concluded that there were genuine issues of fact regarding Riverside’s free speech claim that could only be resolved at trial. Following a several-week-long trial, the court late last month issued its decision and found that the city’s zoning ordinance violated Riverside’s right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and awarded Riverside $1,354,595 in damages.
Riverside identified property in the city’s B-1 district as an ideal satellite location to accommodate its growing congregation. Riverside would use the new location much like a movie theater, where it would broadcast religious worship services being held at its primary church in Big Lake, Minnesota. The property was already suited for Riverside’s intended use, since it had previously been operated as a 15-screen movie theatre, with nearly 2,800 seats, a maximum capacity of over 3,600 people, and having more than 91,000 square feet. Although Riverside sought to use the property in much the same way as a movie theatre – an allowed use under the zoning code for this B-1 district – the city concluded that the proposed use was not allowed since “collective religious worship” was not among the uses permitted in this district. Continue Reading RLUIPA Defense: Church Wins Free Speech Claim Over Zoning Ordinance and $1,354,595 in Damages