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Temples, Churches And Other Religious Organizations Win Civil Rights Battles With Municipalities

Temples, churches and other religious organizations win civil rights battles with municipalities

Hindu organization near  Philadelphia is latest to win case alleging violations of U.S. Constitution  and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000  

Bloomfield Hills, MICH. – A  Hindu faith community based near Philadelphia is among the latest in a trend  toward growing numbers of religious organizations successfully defending  constitutionally granted civil rights in a land use case against a United  States municipality. The Adhi Parasakthi Charitable, Medical, Educational, and  Cultural Society of North America, also known as ACMEC, saw its nearly  two-year-long legal battle end Feb. 8, 2011.

A court order  issued on that date allows ACMEC to build a 27,000-square-foot temple in West  Pikeland Township, Penn. as had been mandated by ACMEC’s faith through its  Guru, believed by the organization to be a living deity. The Township had  previously denied ACMEC’s petition to build the temple as it  proposed.

A review of six additional recent cases coinciding with  this trend may be found below, with additional information available at http://www.attorneysforlanduse.com.

Anatomy  of a Two-Year Battle
The Hindu organization filed suit against the West  Pikeland Township on April 17, 2009 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania  after undergoing what it deemed unfair and unconstitutional treatment  regarding a petition to build the temple on property it owned in the Township.  The suit alleged violations of U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use  and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Despite  un-rebutted testimony heard by the Supervisors of West Pikeland Township in  nine separate conditional use hearings concerning the religious necessity of  the temple size, the Township informed ACMEC it could worship in only a  5,000-square-foot building and imposed numerous other limitations on the  property.

ACMEC proposed the 27,000-square-foot facility after  determining this to be the appropriate size to accommodate the number of  deities its guru required be present in the temple for worship. In reaching  its conclusion regarding how ACMEC could worship, the Township effectively  denied the temple construction. The decision resulted in a substantial burden  on the religious exercise of ACMEC’s congregants.

Precedents  Set Across the Country
Attorney and noted religious land use expert  Daniel Dalton of Dalton, Tomich & Pensler, plc represented ACMEC in the  case. He notes an increase in the number of faith-based organizations,  spanning multiple religions, electing to take their claims of unconstitutional  land use restrictions to the courts.

“In difficult economic  times, city and other municipal decision makers can be tempted to favor  tax-generating property development plans over uses that call for the  construction of tax exempt temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and other  centers for worship,” Dalton said. “That is a violation of the religious  organization’s civil rights under the First Amendment and a violation of  RLUIPA. While property tax revenues remain low, we’re likely to see a  continued increase in this behavior from municipalities across the country.”  

ACMEC joins a growing number of religious organizations  successfully defending civil rights in land use disputes.  

·       In a case that was sent back to district court in  February 2011, International Four Square ministries purchased a building in  2006 within the commercial area of San Leandro, Cali. to be used for religious  worship. The City denied the church the ability to use the building and  subsequently, the church lost the building due to lack of financing. The  church sued the City of San Leandro, alleging that the City effectively  excluded religious organizations from using properties within its boundaries  for religious uses. The church also alleged the onerous zoning restrictions  became a substantial burden to the religious needs of the faith community. The  federal district court rejected the argument and dismissed the claim. The  Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, unanimously reversed the decision,  concluding the City was wrong in zoning the church out of the  community.

·      A federal  court’s consent judgment in December 2010 allowed the Michigan congregation of  Salvation Temple Church to worship freely in a building the church had  purchased from the City of Hazel Park, Mich. in 2009. Hazel Park’s zoning  commission had issued an ordinance illegally excluding any new religious  institution from opening in the City.

·       In November 2010, Real Life Ministries of Adrian,  Mich. sought to purchase a former furniture store and convert it into a  worship facility. As the Township had no property within its boundaries zoned  for religious worship, Real Life Ministries sent a detailed letter to the  Township expressing concerns over this violations of the religious  organization’s civil rights. After receiving the letter, the Township voted in  December 2010 to permit Real Life Ministries to use the building for religious  services, thus avoiding a lawsuit.

·        In the largest  religious land use settlement in the history of the state, the city of  Bellmead, Texas came to an agreement in September 2009 with the Church of the  Open Door, providing the church all necessary permits and variances and a  $550,000 cash award. The city had denied the church’s request to use property  it owned as a religious ministry dedicated to helping men transition from  incarceration to society.

·       In October 2008,  Carlinville Southern Baptist Church won a landmark case in Carlinville, Ill.,  securing the rights to a former Wal-Mart building the church had purchased. In  the settlement, the church was granted the right to use the property for  religious services and secured a cash award of  $165,000.

·       In June 2008,  Celebration Community Church settled a lawsuit with the city of Muskegon,  Mich. out of court. The church secured a special land use permit, allowing  full use of the building it owned for religious services and reimbursement for  some of its legal fees.

All of  the religious entities in these cases were represented by noted religious land  use expert Daniel Dalton of Dalton, Tomich & Pensler, plc. Dalton focuses  his practice on representing religious entities throughout the United  States.

Congress  unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act  (RLUIPA) in 2000 to address local government discrimination in land use  applications submitted by religious organization and in doing so, leveled the  playing field for religious uses and secular uses.

Based in  Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Dalton Tomich & Pensler, plc is a law firm  specializing in providing guidance to leading religious organizations,  businesses and financial institutions across the nation. Visit http://www.dtplawfirm.com or http://www.attorneysforlanduse.com.

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Source:Dalton, Tomich & Pensler PLC
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