Steven Dimitt and Mike Knapek Review Highly-Publicized RLUIPA Case for ABA Litigation Section

August 21, 2017 | Insights

In a recent article for the Real Estate, Condemnation, and Trust section of the Litigation Committee of the American Bar Association, Jackson Walker partners Steven Dimitt and Mike Knapek reviewed an important decision related to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The article explores the decision in Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Township of Bernards, 226 F. Supp.3d 320 (D.N.J. 2016), which provides greater definition of the nondiscrimination provision of RLUIPA.

The case was filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) after the organization was denied permission to build a mosque by the Planning Board of the Bernards Township of New Jersey. Throughout an unprecedented three-and-a-half year land use approval process, the Planning Board continually placed new requirements on ISBR – requirements that had not been imposed on any previous houses of worship. Of particular importance to the case was the issue of parking. Under the Bernards Township Parking Ordinance, “churches” must maintain a 3:1 seat-to-parking space ratio. ISBR proposed a plan that would meet such a parking requirement. However, the Planning Board, after receiving ISBR’s application, considered and adopted an amendment that made it significantly harder to get a house of worship approved.

Previously, the Planning Board had used the 3:1 ratio in assessing the parking plans for churches and synagogues, sometimes even granting a downward variance to allow for fewer parking spaces. However, even though ISBR’s plan satisfied the 3:1 ratio, the Planning Board decided that ISBR needed more parking. The Planning Board relied on a publication from the Institute of Transportation Engineers in making its decision that a mosque needed more parking than any other house of worship. The Planning Board also decided that the 3:1 parking ratio only applied to Christian churches, and not to other houses of worship.

After the denial of its application, ISBR filed suit against the Township alleging, among other claims, that the defendants had violated the RLUIPA’s Nondiscrimination Provision. The court granted ISBR’s motion for partial judgment and held that the disparate treatment of the mosque, versus synagogues and churches, was based on religion. The court determined that the Planning Board’s application of the Parking Ordinance violated RLUIPA because it was equivalent to the Township favoring some religious groups over others. According to the court, the defendants’ downfall was that they “interpreted the Parking Ordinance to expressly distinguish treatment of Christian churches from Muslim mosques.” Because the defendants expressly interpreted “churches” in a discriminatory manner, the application of the ordinance violated RLUIPA. The court also emphasized that the Nondiscrimination Provision is one of strict liability, not strict scrutiny. Because it is strict liability, the court could not consider defendants’ arguments as to why it should be able to discriminate for the needs of the community.

As a result of the decision, ISBR received a $3.25 million settlement. The case is notable as it underscores RLUIPA’s purpose of protecting persons of all faiths, not just Christians.

“The court’s decision reinforces the American ideal of religious freedom, regardless of what religion one professes,” wrote Steven and Mike. “Not only that, but it also exemplifies the incredible protections that the United States has for religious organizations—protections that far exceed those of most other countries.”