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Eleventh Circuit uses six-prong test to find burden may be substantial under RLUIPA

Eleventh Circuit uses six-prong test to find burden may be substantial under RLUIPA

In the ever-evolving quest to more definitively define what burden is substantial under RLUIPA, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest to offer a definition. In January the court reversed the grant of summary judgment to a Georgia community, holding that a church’s RLUIPA claim was still viable even if it had not shown all of its religious exercise had been prevented by a land use decision.

Most relevant to RLUIPA case watchers, the Eleventh Circuit reiterated that courts should use the six-prong analysis set out in 2020 to assess whether a burden is substantial. Interesting, one of those factors includes an assessment of whether the local government “jerked around” the religious organization. The Court said the “substantial burden inquiry does not require a Plaintiff to establish an ‘unmet’ religious need in the community, and its religious exercise need not be completely hamstrung to meet the substantial burden threshold.”

Vision Warriors, a residential ministry, bought property in Cherokee County, Georgia, to operate a faith-based substance abuse rehabilitation center. The prior owners of the 6.5 acre properly, located in a residential zoning district, operated a dormitory at the property. Vision Warriors moved into the property and began work in early 2018. In April 2018, the County issued a Tenant Occupancy Change (“TOC”) permit to Vision Warriors. 

However, over the next several months, the County conducted more investigation into the intended use of the property. In June 2018, the County revoked the TOC because it was determined the property was being used as a temporary shelter. Subsequent appeals and requests for special permit or rezoning into April 2019 were denied. Vision Warriors filed suit on RLUIPA and other grounds, but lost on all claims in the district court. 

On appeal, the three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit analyzed the substantial burden claim. It began by noting that, for a burden to be substantial, there must be more than an incidental effect on religious exercise. Citing 2020 case law, the court clarified that  “substantial” does not mean a “complete, total, or insuperable” burden on religious exercise. Vision Warriors argued that it cannot fulfill its mission as a residential ministry if it cannot house persons at is property, and this burden alone was substantial. 

The Eleventh Circuit panel ruled that the Georgia district court applied a more exacting standard in determining that Vision Warriors failed to establish a substantial burden had been applied to its religious exercise. The appellate court noted that courts were consider six factors as part of an analysis as to whether a burden was substantial:

  • Whether there was a showing of a genuine need for new or more space;
  • The extent to which the zoning decision deprives the plaintiff of a way to engage in protected exercise;
  • Whether there is a meaningful nexus between the impeded conduct and the religious exercise;
  • Whether the City’s decision-making process reflects any arbitrariness evidencing any animus;
  • Whether the denial was final or the claimant has a chance to modify the application; and 
  • Whether the burden is attributable to the government or if it was self-imposed. 

In this instance, the district court erred because preventing Vision Warriors from operating its residential program was a substantial burden. The fact that Vision Warriors could continue non-residential religious exercise did not alleviate that burden, nor was Vision Warriors required to show that all of its religious exercise was totally precluded.

Overall, RLUIPA litigators will appreciate the list of six factors the Eleventh Circuit first broke out in 2020 and now continues to follow in evaluating whether a burden on religious exercise is substantial. We will also be watching to see if more circuit courts of appeal follow this decision and set out similar factors to evaluate. 

The litigators at Cortez & Attorneys have more than a decade of experience litigating RLUIPA and related matters in federal courts across the country. This includes early resolution, comprehensive litigation and federal jury trial experience. If you believe you might have a claim under RLUIPA or related First Amendment protections, please contact Daniel Cortez to discuss this further.

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