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The Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism v. The City of Long Branch

2010 WL 1491079 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING; RLUIPA — The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 provides for damages when a municipality improperly denies land use approval to a house of worship, but the damages cannot cover a period prior to the date that a house of worship actually applied for permission to use its property as such.

An evangelical group purchased a property in an area zoned as a C-1 Commercial District. It intended to use the property for a soup kitchen, mission, job skills training center, counseling center, and bible study classes. It applied for a “d” variance, but its application was deemed incomplete because it failed to include certain required information. About five years later, the church asked the municipality if it could use the property as a church. The municipality said no, refused to issue a zoning permit, and advised the church that it needed a use variance as well as site plan approval and a parking variance from the zoning board. The church never applied.

Two years after this denial, the municipality enacted a redevelopment ordinance designating the church’s property as part of the area in need of redevelopment. The church sued, claiming that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The lower court upheld the ordinance, but on appeal the United States Court of Appeals held that the redevelopment ordinance violated the Equal Terms section of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). To the Court it was not clear why the property’s use a church would cause greater harm to regulatory objectives than a proposed assembly hall in the redevelopment plan that could be used for unspecified meetings. It then remanded the matter to the lower court to enter summary judgment in the church’s favor and to determine the compensatory damages for the period between the group’s application to operate as a church and the enactment of the redevelopment plan.

On remand, the church argued that it should be compensated for the seven-year period starting on the date of its original variance application through the date the redevelopment plan was enacted. However, the lower court disagreed. It found that the church was entitled to compensation for only the two-year period starting on the date the church applied for a zoning permit to operate as a church. It noted that the original variance application listed the property’s proposed use as a soup kitchen, mission, and job training center, but did not list its intended use as church. Therefore, that date was inappropriate for calculating damages based on RLUIPA. Instead, the damages had to be calculated for the period in which the evangelical group first applied to use the property as a church, when it applied for and was denied, a zoning permit to operate as a church.

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