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Lighthouse Inst. for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch - 510 F.3d 253 (3d Cir. 2007)

Rule:

Regarding whether the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc(b)(1), should incorporate a required strict scrutiny analysis of a regulation that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with similarly situated nonreligious assemblies or institutions, RLUIPA's equal terms provision operates on a strict liability standard; strict scrutiny does not come into play.

Facts:

Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism (Lighthouse) began renting space in 1992. At the end of 1994, Lighthouse purchased nearby property at 162 Broadway (Property)., which was located within the C-1 Central Commercial District, and therefore subject to City of Long Branch Ordinance 20-6.13 (Ordinance). The Ordinance enumerated a number of permitted uses such as restaurant, retail, education, governmental service, and entertainment. A church was not listed as a permitted use. Between 1995 and 2000, Lighthouse attempted to obtain permission from Long Branch to employ the Property for a number of uses, including as a soup kitchen, a job skills training program, and a residence for the Lighthouse's reverend. The use was denied in each case, either because the application was incomplete or because the requested use was not permitted. Lighthouse was allowed, however, to use the Property as an office. On April 26, 2000, Lighthouse submitted an application for a zoning permit to use the Property as a church. Long Branch denied the application because the "proposed use was not a permitted use in the Zone and would require prior approvals from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Lighthouse did not seek a variance or appeal the decision. On June 8, 2000, Lighthouse challenged the said ordinance. The church and its pastor sued the city in state court, claiming that city zoning laws violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) "equal terms" provision and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

Issue:

Did the ordinance violate RLUIPA's "equal terms" provision?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court found that the plan did not violate RLUIPA's "equal terms" provision, as there was no evidence that the plan treated religious assemblies on less than equal terms with secular assemblies that would have had an equivalent negative impact on the plan's goals. The goal of the plan was to establish an entertainment and retail district; churches would have interfered with that goal because N.J. Stat. Ann. § 33:1-76 prohibited the issuance of liquor licenses for establishments within 200 feet of a church. However, the ordinance violated RLUIPA, as there was no such basis for distinguishing between secular assemblies and churches. The plan did not violate the Free Exercise Clause as there was no evidence that the inability to locate a church on the property would have negatively affected the practice of religion.

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