Wake Forest Law Review

church-188087__180

By Kayleigh Butterfield

On February 9, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case Andon LLC v. City of Newport News. In this case, Andon, LLC, and Reconciling People Together in Faith Ministries, LLC (collectively, Plaintiffs) filed a complaint against the City of Newport News, Virginia (the City). Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the City violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying Plaintiffs’ variance request that would permit them to use a specific property as a religious facility. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim, and its denial of Plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint.

Church Faces Setback

Walter T. Terry Jr. formed Reconciling People Together in Faith Ministries, LLC (the congregation) in 2012. Terry began looking for a building for the congregation to use and eventually found a property for “lease or sale” by Andon, LLC. The City’s zoning ordinance for commercial properties, such as the one at issue, provided four conditions for properties to be used for a church or place of worship. One of the factors stated that no building may be “located within 100 feet of any side or rear property line which is zoned single-family residential.”

Knowing that the property did not meet the ordinance’s setback requirement, Plaintiff’s filed a request for a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). BZA ultimately denied the variance request. Plaintiffs then brought action under RLUIPA claiming that the denial imposed a substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ exercise of religion.

Dismissal Under 12(b)(6)

Reviewing the district court’s decision de novo, the Fourth Circuit relied heavily on its previous decision in Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council. In that case, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs successfully brought a substantial burden claim under RLUIPA, because the regulations at issue substantially pressured the plaintiffs to modify and then abandon their pre-existing plan to construct a church building. The Fourth Circuit distinguished Plaintiffs’ claim from Bethel by noting that Plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation that they could use the property for religious purposes. Rather, Plaintiffs knew that the City had an ordinance in place prohibiting such use. Thus, Plaintiffs assumed the risk when they entered into the lease agreement and applied for a variance instead of continuing to search for a usable property. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Plaintiffs could not show any facts indicating that the burdens were not self-imposed.

Affirmed

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice, along with the denial of Plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint.

By David Darr

Today, in the civil rights case Infinite Allah v. Virginia, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished per curiam opinion the decision of the District Court for the Western District of Virginia granting judgment in favor of Virginia on the plaintiff’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) claim.

Plaintiff Contended the District Court Erred in Concluding Virginia’s Policies Are the Least Restrictive Means to Further a Compelling Government Interest

On appeal, the plaintiff contended two issues: (1) the District Court erred in concluding that Virginia’s prison policies were the least restrict means of furthering a compelling government interest; and (2) the District Court incorrectly found that the plaintiff’s religious group, the Nation of Gods and Earths (“NGE”), was a prison gang. The plaintiff also asked the court to definitively rule on three issues that the District Court assumed to be in the plaintiff’s favor.

Plaintiff Claimed that Virginia Was Substantially Burdening His Religious Exercise

Infinite Allah, a prisoner, brought a claim against the Virginia Department of Corrections for substantially burdening his religious exercise in violation the RLUIPA. Infinite Allah claimed that Virginia burdened his religion, NGE, by classifying NGE as a gang, by restricting NGE members from meeting communally, by prohibiting the plaintiff from wearing NGE clothing and accessories, by not providing meals that complied with a NGE diet, and by preventing NGE members from access to NGE publications. The District Court held a three-day bench trial to decide the case. The District Court found that NGE asserted racist teachings, NGE acted as a prison gang that posed a threat to the safety and security of the prison, NGE members posed a heightened risk of violence when they met, NGE accessories served as a gang identifier and served recruitment, the prison allowed Infinite Allah to have meals in general accordance with his religious accommodations, and NGE materials contained prison codes for passing messages and racist and violent sentiments.

For the sake of the argument, the District Court assumed that the NGE was a religion, the plaintiff’s beliefs were sincerely held, and that Virginia’s policies substantially burdened the plaintiff. With these three prongs of the RLUIPA assumed, the burden switched to Virginia to show that its policies were the least restrictive means in furtherance of a compelling government interest. The District Court decided that prison safety is a compelling government interest. The District Court also ruled that each of the measures Virginia took was the least restrictive means to further the compelling government interest of prison safety and that the plaintiff’s diet in prison was not substantially burdened. The plaintiff appealed.

Is There Reversible Error in District Court Decision?

The Fourth Circuit examines all findings by the District Court on factual issues on the clearly erroneous standard. It is also an affirmative defense to a RLUIPA claim for a governmental entity to claim that a challenged policy used the least restrictive means in furtherance of a substantial governmental interest.

The Fourth Circuit Adopted the Reasoning of the District Court

The Fourth Circuit commended the District Court on its “well-crafted” opinion, and decided to adopt the same reasoning as the District Court did. The Fourth Circuit gave appropriate deference to the District Court’s finding of fact that NGE was a prison gang in ruling that the District Court’s findings were not clearly erroneous. The Fourth Circuit also agreed with the District Court’s reasoning on whether Virginia’s policies were the least restrictive means to a compelling governmental interest. The Fourth Circuit also refused to rule on the three elements of the RLUIPA that the District Court assumed were satisfied.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that Virginia’s prison policies were the least restrict means of furthering a compelling government interest and that the District Court did not err as to any findings of fact.