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Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Township

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The constitutionality of an Abington Township zoning ordinance requiring religious institutions seeking to locate in residential neighborhoods to apply for a variance with the Zoning Hearing Board of Abington while other entities, such as kennels, municipal complexes, and utility facilities, were permitted to locate in such areas by special exemption is questioned as violative of the First Amendment, Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A city or township ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act if it substantially burdens the right of a religious institution to develop and operate a place of worship on real property.

    Facts.

    An ordinance in Abington Township, Pennsylvania (Defendant) required religious institutions seeking to locate in residential neighborhoods to apply for a variance with the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) of Abington while other entities, such as kennels, municipal complexes, and utility facilities, were permitted to locate in such areas by special exemption. Filing of a variance required the religious institution to demonstrate unnecessary hardship while a special exemption merely required an entity to show that the zoning ordinance permitted the use and that the particular use applied for was consistent with the public interest. A Reform Jewish Synagogue, the Congregation Kol Ami (Plaintiff), applied to the ZHB for a variance or special exemption to operate a house of worship in a residential area. The ZHB denied Plaintiff’s request, even though Plaintiff’s property had served a religious purpose since 1951, first as a Catholic house of worship and then Greek Orthodox. The latter was given a variance to conduct religious activities by the ZHB. Plaintiff wanted to expand religious services and the synagogue’s parking lot. Plaintiff sued the Defendant alleging violations of the First Amendment, Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Pa-RFRA). Plaintiff and the Township filed several motions. The court conducted a hearing on the motions.

    Issue.

    Whether a city or township ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act if it substantially burdens the right of a religious institution to develop and operate a place of worship on real property.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is denied. A city or township ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act if it substantially burdens the right of a religious institution to develop and operate a place of worship on real property.

    Discussion.

    Plaintiff first claims that Abington’s ordinance violates the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const., amend I. The First Amendment is only violated if there is a substantial burden on religious exercise. The free exercise of religion is substantially burdened when the government coerces an individual not to engage in a fundamental tenet of the person’s religion or when following a religious tenet forces an individual to forgo government benefits. Here, the prohibition against Plaintiff from locating a synagogue in the requested residential neighborhood does not substantially burden the congregation’s ability to exercise their religion freely. Moreover, Plaintiff’s claim that locating the synagogue in one of three other areas does not suit the congregation’s needs does not alter the court’s conclusion. The First Amendment does not guarantee a perfect fit between available land and proposed religious purposes. Next, Plaintiff argues that Abington’s ordinance violates the RLUIPA. The RLUIPA broadens the test for what may be deemed a “substantial burden” on the free exercise of religion. Under the RLUIPA, the development of real property for religious purposes is deemed to be “religious exercise” that, in the instant case, was substantially burdened by the requirements of Abington’s ordinance. The ordinance and subsequent denial of the variance effectively prevented Plaintiff from engaging in the free exercise of religion. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that the ordinance violates the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech and assembly. However, the court finds that the ordinance is content neutral and is reasonable in terms of time, place, and manner. Abington’s ordinance is aimed at maintaining the peaceful enjoyment of residential property and survives a strict scrutiny analysis. Plaintiff further argues that Abington’s ordinance violates the Equal Protection Clause. Equal protection challenges to laws or government action are permissible “if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 440 (1985). If two similarly situated uses of property are treated differently, a land use ordinance will be deemed “irrational” if the state interest is not rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Here, a house of worship is not similarly situated to a utility facility or a municipal complex. Plaintiff’s proposed use, including having large gatherings for religious study attended by a specific subset of residents, differs from a library which is contained and available to all members of a residential neighborhood. Plaintiff’s Equal Protection claim is dismissed. Additionally, Plaintiff’s claims that the Abington ordinance violates the Due Process Clause are dismissed.


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