In this federal magistrate decision, the court found that permitting parks, playgrounds, and educational institutions, but not religious assemblies, in a zoning district constituted a violation of the Equal Terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

Hope Rising Community Church (the “Church”) sought to relocate into a larger space to accommodate its growing congregation.  To this end, they entered into a 3 year lease for a warehouse space in Penn Hills’ Light-Industrial (“L-I”) district.  Religious assemblies are not a permitted use in the L-I district and are only permitted as a conditional use in residential districts. The municipality subsequently issued a violation notice demanding all church services cease and desist.  The Church then submitted a variance application, but was denied by the zoning hearing board. Thereafter the Church filed two facial challenges to the zoning ordinance under the Equal Terms and Unreasonable Limitations provisions of the RLUIPA, and sought a preliminary injunction against the municipality.

The Church argued that by only permitting religious assemblies as a conditional use, and therefore requiring them to go through the conditional use approval process, the municipality unreasonably restricted its religious assembly in violation of the RLUIPA. On this issue, the court found the Church was unlikely to succeed on the merits and recommended the preliminary injunction be denied. It found that all conditional uses must follow the same application process and that the process was not unreasonable.

On its second claim, the Church argued that by permitting parks, playgrounds, and educational facilities—but not religious assemblies—in the L-I district, the municipality was treating religious assemblies on less than equal terms with secular assemblies in violation of the RLUIPA. The court recommended a preliminary injunction be granted on this claim.  It found that parks, playgrounds, and educational institutions constituted “secular assemblies” under the RLUIPA, and that the municipality failed to show how religious institutions would cause greater harm to the L-I district than these uses. Therefore, the Church was likely to prevail on the merits and a preliminary injunction was warranted.

Click here to read: Hope Rising Community Church v. Municipality of Penn Hills, 2015 WL 7720380 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 28, 2015).

Edited by:

Sivertsen_BLOG Zachary A. Sivertsen, Esquire