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RLUIPA lawsuits and free beach parking

RLUIPA defense counsel took note of a Florida case earlier this year that questioned whether free beach access constituted a sincerely held religious belief under the RLUIPA statute. The case, encaptioned Pass-A Grille Beach Community Church Inc. v. City of St. Pete Beach concerned a municipal challenge to a church’s evangelical practices that occurred while it provided the entire community with free beach access. Some might wonder what free beach access has to do with religious beliefs. Nonetheless the Church in this case took the position that providing free beach access was part of its religious activities.

The church had a parking lot that provided much coveted beach access. It had not always provided the community at large with free beach access parking but began to do so believing that free beach access might ultimately attract more people to the Church. While community members eagerly took advantage of this free amenity church members requested donations and evangelized.

Some neighbors took issue with the church outdoor activity and asked the municipality to intervene. In response, the City of St Pete Beach took the position that its land use ordinances prohibited non church members from parking in the lot for non-church related business. The Church filed a lawsuit against the municipality, in part relying on the federal law known as RLUIPA. RLUIPA is a very powerful law that houses of worship have used to counter land use decisions that are alleged to block or limit constitutionally protected rights under the First Amendment.

The operative language in RLUIPA provides:

No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

In this case the federal district court ruled that it was unlikely that the municipality could eventually meet the burden of proving that its actions were supported by a compelling governmental interest or if so, that this was the least restrictive means of doing so. The Court also evaluated a sworn statement by the Church attempting to demonstrate that its religious convictions relating to free parking were sincere:

Rev. Dr. Keith A. Haemmelmann, the Church’s lead minister, stated in a declaration, under penalty of perjury, as follows:

  • The Church’s practice of permitting open and free parking to the public on its lot is guided by two of the Church’s core values – stewardship and hospitality.
  • Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God specifically calls his people to practice hospitality and to love others more than oneself. This is emphasized in multiple passages such as Romans l2:3, 1 Peter 4:9, Hebrews 13: l-12, I Timothy 3:2, and others. By showing hospitality to others, Jesus says we are worshipping Him (Matthew 25:34-36).
  • The Church’s regular and historical practice of offering its lot to the general public is an act of service and worship.
  • God also calls us as a Church to practice good stewardship (Matthew 25:14-30). This means we use all that we have wisely and in a way that serves God. The Church has been blessed with a location that is beautiful, accessible, and available for serving the community. Biblical stewardship demands that we continue to offer the parking lot to the public as a sign of hospitality. Indeed, to make a practice of turning away or even towing visitors would be a sin against God. See (Doc. 30-1).

Following this review, the district court issued an injunction temporally blocking all municipal attempts to curtail the Church’s activities. This is not a final injunction as the case still needs to be litigated. But this order is effect while the case proceeds to conclusion.

RLUIPA is a very powerful law used by houses of worship all over the U.S. in cases where they believe their rights to freely practice their sincerely help religious beliefs are being threatened by land use decisions. We have seen prominent cases recently involving Mosques, Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples, and just about every religious denominations. On some occasions the federal Department of Justice has intervened.

Municipalities must be aware of the contours of this Legislation in order to mount appropriate defenses. For one thing is certain: not every land use decision that impacts a house of worship is a federal law violation. But RLUIPA is a very strong statute and those mounting sincerely held defenses must work within the Legislative parameters. For now, however, free beach parking in St Pete’s stands a prayer.

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