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Monday, November 4, 2013

Seventh Circuit Upholds Denial of Zoning for Bible Camp

A summer camp operator alleged that the Town of Woodboro and Oneida County violated the camp's constitutional rights and RLUIPA in prohibiting the camp from running a year-round bible camp on residentially zoned property.  The district court ruled in favor of the Town and County, and the camp operator appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed, also ruling in favor of the Town and County in Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center v. Town of Woodboro, (7th Cir. October 30, 2013).
The Town had enacted a land use plan in 1998 that encouraged low density single family residential development along its lake and river-fronts.  In 2009, the Town adopted a comprehensive plan that incorporated these goals.  The zoning around Squash Lake reflects these goals, and all but seven of the properties in that area were zoned for single family uses.  The seven non-residentially zoned lots were grandfathered with pre-existing uses.  Eagle Cove (plaintiff) wanted to construct a bible camp on 34 acres of property they own on Squash Lake. Those parcels are all zoned for residential and/or residential and farming uses. Eagle Cove filed an application to rezone the property to a recreational zoning district to allow the bible camp.  The County denied the rezone petition, and shortly thereafter Eagle Cove sought a conditional use permit to permit the bible camp while maintaining the residential zoning of the property.  The Town recommended that the County deny the CUP because it was not consistent with the goals of the comprehensive plan, and the County agreed, denying the CUP.
Shortly after the denial of the CUP, Eagle Cove filed suit, claiming violations of various constitutional and federal statutes, including RLUIPA, ADA, the Rehabilitation Act. The County and Town filed motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted.
The Seventh Circuit first addressed Eagle Cove's "total exclusion claim" under RLUIPA, finding that the zoning decisions did not preclude Eagle Cove from conducting any religious assembly on the properties, just not in the form of a bible camp. Moreover, Eagle Cove could operate a bible camp in many other parts of the County, just not on this parcel.  Second, the Court rejected Eagle Cove's substantial burden claim under RLUIPA, finding that there were numerous other locations within the County for Eagle Cove to place its bible camp.  The comprehensive plan was a neutral land use regulation, and Eagle Cove does not get a "free pass" or special treatment on the basis of any religious purpose.  Third, the fact that Eagle Cove spent considerable time and money on its various zoning applications does not constitute a substantial burden under RLUIPA. Eagle Cove's "equal terms" claim was also rejected, because the ban on year-round recreational camps applies equally to both religious and secular assemblies.


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