Friday, July 17, 2009

Washington Supreme Court Finds Permit Moratorium Violated Church's Rights

In City of Woodinville v. Northshore United Church of Christ, (WA Sup. Ct., July 16, 2009), the Washington state Supreme Court held that the city of Woodinville violated a church's free exercise rights protected By Art. I, Sec. 11 of the Washington Constitution when it refused to process the church's application for a temporary use permit so it could host a Tent City for the homeless for a period of 90 days. The city had placed a total moratorium on temporary use permits in the area in order to study the environmental effects of new development. Finding that the state constitution's free exercise protections are broader than those in the federal Constitution, the court said:
the City’s total moratorium placed a substantial burden on the Church. It prevented the Church from even applying for a permit. It gave the Church no alternatives.... The City failed to show that the moratorium was a narrow means for achieving a compelling goal. Therefore, the City’s action constituted a violation of article I, section 11 of our constitution.
The court also held that while the church had previously agreed that it would not host another Tent City without obtaining a use permit, under the unique circumstances of this case it was excused from performance of the agreement.

A concurring opinion by Justice Sanders (joined by Justice Chambers) argued that a city cannot constitutionally condition a church's use of its own property on its applying for a use permit. He also concluded that the city's action violated RLUIPA, so the church was entitled to recover damages and attorneys' fees. Yesterday's Merced (CA) Sun-Star reported on the decision.