Requiring Religious Institutions to Comply with Neutral Conditional Use Permit Process is Not a Substantial Burden under RLUIPA
In County of Los Angeles v. Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, a California Court of Appeal affirmed a grant of preliminary injunction enjoining the religious school from operating in a residential zone until it obtained a conditional use permit. The school had first removed the case to federal court, but the district court remanded to the state court; the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because federal law was raised only as a defense.
In Sahag-Mesrob, the school had applied for a conditional use permit, but began operating without any such permit. Complaints of excessive noise and traffic resulted in county inspectors sending the school violation notices demanding that the school cease operating until the end of the permit process. The school then applied for a clean hands waiver application, under which it would be able to operate pending the resolution of the conditional use permit application process. The County denied the application because of the extensive intensification of use of the property – the previous owners of the property offered short-term care for an undisclosed number of children under 6 years old; the new school had 240 students and 30 staff, and applied to be able to enroll up to 800 students. The County had previously denied one other clean hands waiver application to a religious institution for the same reason. It had approved five others.
The Court, pointing out that “no Supreme Court case holds the failure to comply with a neutral zoning application process is a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedoms,” held that neither the requirement that the school apply for a conditional use permit nor the denial of its clean hands application substantially burdens its exercise of religious practices within the meaning of RLUIPA. Similarly, compliance with CEQA is not a substantial burden under the Act.
Although the case does not forge new ground under RLUIPA, it serves as a reminder that RLUIPA provides no exemption for religious institutions to avoid compliance with neutral zoning regulation procedures such as conditional use permit processes, and that asserting RLUIPA as a defense alone is not sufficient to bring a case within the jurisdiction of federal court.ShareThis