The City of San Leandro asked the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday to a land use case involving a local megachurch that sought to open a new church in an industrial zone.
The city is asking the court to review a federal appeals court decision in favor of , a 2,000-member church that purchased property to expand and was then forced to sell it at a loss after the city denied the required zoning and use permits.
The key questions in the case surround just how far local governments must go to accommodate religious landowners, according to the city’s lead counsel in the case, Marci Hamilton, an expert in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, the federal law at the heart of the dispute between the city and church.
“It’s very clear there’s a lot of confusion out there, and this is when it’s important [for the Supreme Court] to step in,” Hamilton said.
Faith Fellowship, led by the charismatic pastor , filed suit against the city in July 2007 after the city denied it permission to open a new church in an industrial area not zoned for such uses. The church had purchased a property in the area and was forced to sell it at a loss after the city denied the proper zoning and use permits.
Faith Fellowship claims it lost nearly $4 million in the ordeal.
In an interview earlier this year with Patch, Mortara said the church “never wanted to get into this fight with the city. We just need a building….” The church has been represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative Christian legal group based in California.
Under the federal religious land use act, which was passed by Congress in 2000, governments are prohibited from imposing or implementing overly burdensome land use regulations on religious institutions unless there’s a “compelling governmental interest” for the regulation, and it’s the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.
Whether or not general planning principles constitute a “compelling governmental interest” is one of the questions the city hopes the Supreme Court will address.
A federal district court judge originally granted the city summary judgment in the case. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in February, saying the issue of whether or not the city imposed a "substantial burden" on the Church’s religious exercise under the law should be decided in court. The appeals court has since upheld that decision, following a petition for reconsideration filed by the city in March.
Hamilton is a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner in 1989. She has represented many municipalities in religious land use cases, and authored the book God vs. the Gavel in 2005. (You can watch her appearance on the Daily Show discussing the book here.)
When she took on the case in May, she told Patch that the issues raised in the Faith Fellowship case were “prime for a Supreme Court review."
"This is a national issue. It’s important to cities all over the country. That’s the kind of issue the Supreme Court is interested in," she said.
The court will likely decide whether to accept the case after it reconvenes in October.