Agudath Israel of America has submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in a case in the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals: Canaan Christian Church v. Montgomery County, Maryland. The case involves a church that had entered into a contract to purchase land that was properly zoned for a place of worship, only to then be denied a zoning variance for water and sewage usage by the county, making the land effectively unusable. The church challenged the denial of the variance in federal court, arguing that by allowing secular entities this same variance that they were denying the church, the County violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which prohibits such discrimination. The federal court rejected the church’s claims, accepting the County’s supposed distinctions between the church’s proposed use of the land and those of secular entities. The court also said that claims made under RLUIPA would not be accepted if the institution that brings the lawsuit should have had a “reasonable expectation” that its proposal would be rejected.
The Agudah’s brief argues that allowing a municipality to offer minor differences between religious and nonreligious land uses would contradict the plain text of RLUIPA. Further, the court’s “reasonable expectation” standard through which it rejected the church’s claims was too strict and would lead to further unjustified land use denials to religious institutions.
The amicus curiae brief, drafted by the Yale Law School Free Exercise Clinic under the direction of Christopher Pagliarella, Visiting Clinical Lecturer, and with the law firm of Sidley and Austin serving as counsel of record, was also signed onto by the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
Agudath Israel thanks the Yale Free Exercise Clinic for producing this important brief, and we hope that the Fourth Circuit will agree that the decision by the district court was at variance with RLUIPA.