By: Evan J. Seeman and Dwight Merriam, Robinson & Cole, LLP
On July 22, 2014, Cornerstone Church by the Bay (Church) and Laguna Madre Christian Academy (Academy) sued the Town of Bayview, Texas (Town) under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), and the U.S. and Texas constitutions over a zoning ordinance it claims prohibits it from operating a church and religious school on property it owns in the Town’s Single-Family Dwelling District.
Plaintiffs allege the following in their Complaint. Previously, the Church and the Academy paid to rent property in Laguna Vista, Texas. They then acquired property in the single-family zone and sought to operate a church and religious school there, but soon became aware that such uses were prohibited in this zone. The property was formerly used as a community center with a gymnasium, a swimming pool, meeting facilities, and office space. Plaintiffs allege that following several communications with the Town and its officials, they applied to amend the zoning ordinance to permit churches and schools as allowable uses in the zone. They asserted that the zoning ordinance violated RLUIPA and TRFRA, and were told by Defendants that the best course of action would be to submit a draft of a new zoning ordinance that would remedy the alleged violations. Plaintiffs submitted a proposed draft ordinance, but the Town took no action on it and, instead, rejected the zoning amendment request. On June 26, 2014, Defendants sent a letter to Plaintiffs advising them of the decision to reject the zoning amendment, informing them that they are not allowed to operate a church or religious school on the property, and the Church and the Academy would face legal action if they did so.
Plaintiffs claim that the Town treats it worse than other secular assembly uses because while the zoning ordinance prohibits religious uses from the subject zone, it allows other secular assembly uses – golf courses, farms, truck gardens, orchards, green houses and nurseries. They also claim they have been substantially burdened in their religious exercise because they are prohibited from operating on the property as a result of the zoning ordinance, and would face enforcement action if they do so. Additional claims include violations of RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision for the purposeful discrimination against religious institutions and RLUIPA’s unreasonable limitations provision because the zoning ordinance “substantially and unreasonably limited the ability of religious institutions from operating within Bayview, and is both unwarranted by any legitimate government interest and unreasonable.”
To review the rest of Plaintiffs’ claims in Cornerstone Church by the Bay v. Town of Bayview, Texas (SD TX 2014), you can view the complaint here. The Town’s zoning ordinance and zoning map can be accessed here and here. The Liberty Institute has issued a press release which is available here.
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