Thursday, January 28, 2021

RLUIPA Bars City's Enforcement of Parking Lot Restrictions On Church

In Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church, Inc. v. City of St. Pete Beach, Florida, (MD FL, Jan. 26, 2021), a Florida federal district court, relying on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, granted a preliminary injunction barring the city from enforcing restrictions on the way in which the church can use its own parking lot. The church, which is located across the street from the beach, allows the public to use its parking lot, free of charge, to access the beach. The city contends that its ordinances prohibit the church from allowing anyone who is not there on legitimate church business from parking in the lot. According to the court:

[The church] states that a vital aspect of its beliefs and ministry is outreach to the local community and the world, heeding a direct command from Christ himself. It desires to use “biblically-based hospitality” to help people enjoy a day at the beach with their families. The Church cites several Biblical verses in support of its beliefs on this point.

After concluding that the city has imposed a "substantial burden" on the church, the court analyzes the primary disagreement between the parties-- the sincerity of the church's religious beliefs regarding use of the parking lot. The court said in part:

When inquiring into a claimant's sincerity ... our task is ... limited to asking whether the claimant is (in essence) seeking to perpetrate a fraud on the court – whether he actually holds the beliefs he claims to hold.... 

The Church is certainly not attempting to perpetrate a fraud upon the Court when it states it desires to use its parking facilities to further its mission by attracting new people. Common sense shows that attracting new members is an important goal for almost all community organizations and mainstream religious groups. Likewise, giving away something for free (in this case parking) is a time-honored strategy used to generate attention create interest, and attract new customers.

At most, the City has demonstrated that the Church may have changed its mind over the years regarding the religious implications of its use of its parking lot.... Well respected religious leaders and institutions throughout the world change their minds on certain matters from time to time, and no one would suggest those changes evidence insincere religious beliefs.