Explainer: Christian school fights Michigan Township for right to operate out of a church

What is the case about?

A private Christian school is suing a Michigan Township, claiming zoning regulations are being used to prevent the ministry from operating within the town’s city limits. First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization that defends religious freedom for Americans, is representing the school in the lawsuit. The school’s claims have been rejected by both a district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“This precedent is very dangerous. It states that it is not a burden on religious exercise for a city to ban religious schools, churches, synagogues or mosques from moving into town,” says Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel of First Liberty. “In fact, if a city wanted to ban a specific synagogue or mosque from moving into its city limits, the court held such a ban would not be a substantial burden on religious exercise. This is shocking and cannot be allowed to stand. Towns who use their zoning laws to keep religious schools and organizations out of their backyard violate federal law and the First Amendment.”

What are the facts of the case?

Livingston Christian Schools (LCS) is a non-denominational Christian school serving students from pre-kindergarten through high school in Livingston County, Michigan. LCS needed to move to a new location to be closer to students and to avoid the extensive maintenance costs of their current location, so they relocated to the only viable location to house their religious school, a building owned by the Brighton Nazarene Church in Genoa Township.

After moving to the new location, the Township Board notified LCS the school would need a new special permit. Despite the recommendations of the town’s planning commission and consultants who approved the school’s application, Genoa Township refused to give LCS a permit to operate its school at Brighton Church, effectively precluding the school from existing anywhere in the town.

The school sued the Township in federal court claiming the board had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). But the federal district court ruled that the school’s religious liberty had not met the standard of being “substantially burdened” under the RLUIPA. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit upheld the Township’s denial of the permit.  

What is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act?

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is a federal law enacted by unanimous consent of Congress in 2000 to correct the problems of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Under the section on land use as religious exercise, the statute says that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution is both in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The law also states that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution and that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.

The law also prohibits governments from imposing or implementing a land use regulation that totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

What is the reason the appeals court rejected the “substantial burden” claim?

The appeals court notes that neither the statute nor the Supreme Court has clarified what constitutes a substantial-burden under RLUIPA, leaving the lower court to decide what meets the standard. The court says that, “not just any imposition on religious exercise will constitute a violation of RLUIPA” and that the standard is not met when the burden is self-imposed.

The court determined that LCS had essentially imposed the burden upon itself because it could have “returned with little or no expense if it had not leased that property to [the school’s previous location] after this litigation” and that since the school’s “stated mission is to serve Livingston County as a whole, not Genoa Township in particular” it could have moved to a property outside of the township.

What happens next in this case?

Attorneys representing LCS petitioned the Sixth Circuit for the case to be heard by all the full court, but that request was denied. The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

“The government is refusing to allow a Christian school to move into a building on church property or, for that matter, anywhere else in town. That’s wrong,” says Hiram Sasser. “Federal law expressly prohibits the government using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town.”

“This case will determine whether cities across America can ban Christian schools from their city limits. We hope the court will protect the rights of religious institutions to exist in American cities,” Sasser added.