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Wednesday, March 20, 2024

In the Zone: Seventh Circuit Upholds Denial of Outdoor Athletic Lights

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a City in a private religious school's challenge to the City’s denial of permits to build outdoor athletic lights . Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart Inc. v. City of Madison

A City created a unique zoning district, the Campus-Institutional-District (CID), with specific procedures for granting zoning approvals. A private religious school within the CID boundaries submitted a development plan (a required CID procedure) to renovate its athletic facilities. The plan did not include building outdoor athletic lighting which the school planned to do, and the City informed the school that outdoor lighting would not be permitted without including it in the proposed development plan. Instead, the school applied for a lighting permit through other procedures, but the City denied that application because granting it was inconsistent with the development plan. The school then sued the City, claiming the denial of its outdoor lighting violated RLUIPA, the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and vested rights law. The district court ruled in favor of the City, and the school appealed.

RLUIPA generally requires municipalities to treat religious and nonreligious institutions similarly and not place a substantial burden on religious exercise through zoning regulations. The Seventh Circuit found that since the school failed to offer any evidence that a nonreligious institution received outdoor lighting when the school did not, it was not treated differently than a nonreligious institution. The Seventh Circuit also held the City's denial of outdoor lights did not place a substantial burden on the school’s religious mission. As a result, the Seventh Circuit found no RLUIPA violation.

On the school's Free Exercise Clause claim, the Seventh Circuit found that the school failed to provide a compelling reason that the Seventh Circuit should address this claim on the merits (the district court did not address the claim because it found that RLUIPA is at least as restrictive, if not more so, than than the Free Exercise Clause), and upheld the dismissal of this claim.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit determined that because the school did not include outdoor lights in its required development plan, the proposed outdoor lighting did not conform to City regulations, and the school could not establish a vested right to install the outdoor lights. 

Post Authored by Daniel Lev & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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