RLUIPA and a Nomadic Church in New Jersey

 

My Father’s House, a small nomadic church in Burlington County, New Jersey filed a federal lawsuit on October 19, 2015 against the Delanco Township of New Jersey alleging the township prevented it from setting up a permanent place of worship due to the zoning ordinance in place. The Plaintiff seeks injunctive and declaratory relief arising from the township’s alleged “discriminatory ordinance” and “unconstitutional treatment.” In its complaint, My Father’s House claims the township’s ordinance violates several provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the United States Constitution.

According to the complaint, since the Church’s founding in 2012, it has never had a permanent place to worship despite its constant efforts to locate such, and has remained nomadic while continuing to serve the people of New Jersey through its practices. Further, the Church alleges it was finally able to locate a promising meeting place at a vacant property that met its budget concerns, only to be denied same.

Upon being informed it would need a use zoning variance because the property was located in an industrial zone, Plaintiff submitted an application. A public hearing was held to hear the Plaintiff’s application and the application was denied on the same day by the Township’s Joint Land Use Board. The complaint cites the reason for the Board’s denial was that “a variance could not be granted without substantially impairing the intent of the master plan and zoning ordinance… churches are permitted in every zone except industrial.” Additionally, the Board was also concerned that “granting the application would hurt economic viability and make it difficult to attract industrial and commercial uses.” Plaintiff’s attorney John W. Mauck of Mauck & Baker commented on the basis for the Board’s denial stating, “Such an argument misunderstands the purpose of the variance process which is to adjust and make accommodations when the zoning code treats the people and property owners harshly and unreasonably.”

As reported on the RLUIPA Defense Blog, the court recently issued a Consent Order in this case preliminarily enjoining Defendant from preventing the Church from using the property it rents as a religious assembly. I would submit that in the interest of fairness to the Church, which has remained nomadic, the court was correct in at least preliminarily enjoining the Township from denying the Church’s use of the property. Although this does not resolve the case, it is a promising first step that will allow the Church to start shedding its status as a nomadic church with hopes to find a home.

 

 

Post by Ariela Cohen, Touro Law Center May 2017

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