Friday, September 02, 2016
Church's RLUIPA Claim Dismissed, But Defamation Claim Moves Forward
In Riverside Church v. City of St. Michael, (D MN, Aug. 31, 2016), a Minnesota federal district court dismissed a church's RLUIPA and free exercise claims, but allowed the church to proceed on its free speech and defamation claims. A Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation attempted to purchase a building formerly used as a movie theater but could not obtain city zoning approval. Eventually the city amended its zoning ordinance to allow religious assemblies, among others, in the relevant zoning district. The Church however sued over the past zoning denials, and over an allegedly false public statement the city made as to why the Church withdrew from negotiations with the city. In dismissing the Church's RLUIPA claim, the court concluded that neither the substantial burden nor equal terms provisions of the law were violated. The court also pointed to a less-often used safe-harbor provision in RLUIPA that allows the city to "avoid the pre-emptive force" of the statute by taking action to eliminate the substantial burden imposed by a policy. In allowing the Church's free speech claim to proceed, the court concluded that questions remained as to whether the ban on religious assemblies in the relevant zoning district was narrowly enough tailored to the city's traffic safety concerns.