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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Zoning Amendment Did Not Moot Church's RLUIPA Claim

In Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi, (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2012), a church leased property in the city’s downtown square, pending zoning approval.  The city’s zoning ordinance at the time singled out “churches” for unfavorable treatment.  The church filed suit in federal district court, alleging that the church-specific provisions in the ordinance were a violation of RLUIPA.  The district court denied the church’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the city from enforcing its zoning ordinance.  The church then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the night before oral arguments were heard, the city amended the ordinance to ban “[c]hurches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other religious facilities” from its downtown square.  The city argued that the church suffered no harm as it could have asked for a variance from the ordinance before filing suit.  The city also argued that its repeal of the original ordinance rendered the case moot.  

The Fifth Circuit, however, rejected the city’s arguments, concluding that the outright ban in the second ordinance presented an even weaker case for mootness.  According to the court, "Holly Springs has already repeated its allegedly wrongful conduct. Instead of imposing special burdens on Opulent Life before it can occupy its leased property, Holly Springs has doubled down and banned Opulent Life from the property altogether. This may present an even weaker case for mootness...the case is not moot."

Additionally, the Fifth Circuit held that the church suffered irreparable harm when it was unable to use the building it had leased.  A unanimous three-judge panel concluded that the church had outgrown its current location and the city’s actions frustrated its religious mission.  Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court decision and remanded the case to determine the likelihood the church will succeed on its challenge to the validity of the new ordinance, the harm caused to each party by a preliminary injunction, the amount of actual damages suffered by the church, and whether the church is due attorneys fees.

Had the city amended its zoning code to expand its list of prohibited uses in the downtown square to include non-religious assembly uses (such as libraries, museums, art galleries, which the court noted were permitted), the court may have decided this case very differently. 

Post Authored by Erin Baker and Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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