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Cheltenham Township Not at Variance with the Law Regarding Church

For the second time over the last year, a congregation of the First Korean Church of New York, Inc. (hereinafter “the Church”) finds itself embroiled in litigation against its local government regarding various issues of land use and taxation.  Accordingly, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently entered an opinion in the matter of First Korean Church of New York, Inc. v. Cheltenham Township Zoning Hearing Board and Cheltenham Township, case number 2005-6389.  The parties in the above-referenced case engaged in extremely extensive tangled litigation since at least 1998, when the Church was cited by Cheltenham Township (hereinafter “the Township”) via its Director of Engineering, Zoning, and Inspections, and worked its way through the local zoning board, multiple hearings and applications for special exceptions and variances by the Church, disputed tax assessment, litigation in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, and ultimately the litigation at issue in this article starting in 2005 which reached the point of cross motions for summary judgment filed by the parties heard by the Eastern District.  The primary issue addressed by the parties and, of course the Court, is how the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (hereinafter “RLUIPA”) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution apply to the parties herein, and it is this application that is the subject of the instant article.  Procedurally, the Court has found itself ruling upon cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties,

 

Cheltenham’s Zoning Ordinance of 1929 established so-called “R-Residence” districts pursuant to a development plan for the Township.  If a party wishes to use his/its property for religious uses in an R-Residence district, the appropriate procedure is to petition the Zoning Hearing Board for a special exemption.  The Zoning Ordinance of 1929 was amended in 2003 and, at that time, nearly twenty (20) percent of the Township was tax-exempt.

 

The Church purchased the property-at-issue (hereinafter “the Property”) in 1996 at a sheriff’s sale.  The Property was formerly a seminary consisting of three (3) buildings.  The first building has one-hundred and ten (110) rooms which the seminary dismantled; the Church only uses the first floor and the remainder is unusable.  The second building has forty-four (44) rooms which were without heat, generally dismantled, and mostly demolished.  The pastor of the Church and his wife lived in the only three (3) usable rooms of the second building.  The third building is empty.  The campus consisting of the aforesaid three (3) buildings is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with two (2) entrances (one able to be opened via remote control).  In 1998, the Church erected a sign at the Property which resulted in Township sending the Church a letter indicating the Church was in violation of the above-mentioned Ordinances as the Church had not obtained a special exemption to operate a church in an “R-Residence” district.  The aforesaid letter from the Township sparked the next nearly fourteen (14) years of litigation.  The Township subsequently did two (2) inspections of the Property and found it in significant disrepair.

 

The Church appealed the Township’s findings described above and sought a special exemption for the Property to use it as a seminary and functional church, which would include a parking lot, library, and dormitories.  The Church’s proposed use of the Property would use seven (7) of the Property’s thirty-three (33) acres.  The zoning board denied the Church’s request for a special exemption on the bases that the seminary was not approved by the Commonwealth and the Property was too deteriorated to sufficient repair it.  Further, the Township did not believe a seminary was consistent with a residential area.  The Church appealed the denial to Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, and subsequently all the way to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, all of which ruled in favor of the Township.

 

In 2000, while the above-litigation was in process, the Church filed a second application for a special exception.  The substantive difference with the second application, as compared to the first, is that the Church was already operating a seminary on the Property; the Church argued that this was a “substantial change”.  As a result, the Church’s latest application requested approval of their continued use of the Property as a seminary.  The Zoning Board denied the reapplication noting that a “substantial change” refers to the condition of the Property, not its use.

 

Undeterred, the Church applied for a variance in 2007.  When pursuing the variance, the Church did not raise any argument pursuant to the RLUIPA, and refused to include a claim under RLUIPA despite being given the opportunity to do so by the Zoning Board.  The Zoning Board denied the Church’s request for a variance pursuant to the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code as the Church did not meet the criteria laid out by the same.

 

While all of the above was proceeding the Church also pursued tax exempt status for the Property.  The Church’s application in 1998 for tax exemption for the Property was denied by the court, employing the logic that as the Property was not authorized to be used as a church, the Church could not secure tax exemption on that basis either.  The Church appealed and in 2006 the Commonwealth Court ruled that tax exemption is based on actual use and not just authorized use; accordingly the Commonwealth Court remanded for the purpose of determining the Property’s actual use.  On remand, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas held a two-day trial which found that the was no regular church use at the Property since 1998.  This decision, too, was appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Commonwealth Court.  On remand, the Court of Common Pleas ruled that the Church was not eligible for tax exemption as the Property was not used as a regular place of worship.

 

After pursuing years of litigation, as described above, the Church, in 2005, finally brought the action in the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania which just recently reached resolution.  The Church’s federal action challenged the 1998 and 2000 denials of a special exemption.  The Church claims that the denials of the two (2) special exemption requests violates the RLUIPA and the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  Ultimately, the parties filed cross-motions for Summary Judgment and it is on these motions that the District Court entered the opinion that is the subject of this article.

 

The Church raised seven (7) events which it believed were violative of the RLUIPA and the First and Fourteenth Amendments: (1) the 1998 denial of its request for special exemption; (2) the 2000 denial of its request for special exemption; (3) the validity of the 2003 ordinance requiring a variance to be filed for religious uses; (4) the denial of the 2007 variance request; (5) the police monitoring the Property; (6) the Township threatening to fine it; and, (7) the Township’s claim that the Church’s use is illegal.

 

Before moving on to the substantive issues, the court addressed the applicable statutes of limitations under the RLUIPA.  The court ruled that the RLUIPA’s statute of limitations is four (4) years.  As the Church brought its action in 2005 for an issue arising in 2003, and filed its amended complaint in 2008, including a claim for an issue in 2007, its action was timely.  Further, the police monitoring in 2009 – 2010, the ongoing threat of fines, and the property usage, are all timely claims.

 

The core of the Church’s RLUIPA claims is that the Township has substantially burdened its religious exercise.  The RLUIPA defines “religious exercise” to include any exercise of religion, including the use of real property.  What constitutes a “substantial burden” is interpreted in accordance with the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.  A “substantial burden” is one which meets one or both of two (2) factors: (1) where a religionist is forced to choose between his religion and benefits generally available to similarly situated non-religionists; and, (2) government applies substantial pressure on a religionist to change his behavior and/or violate his beliefs.

 

In support of its RLUIPA claims, the Church claimed that the Township treated it less than equally as compared to a secular party.  Under the RLUIPA, the Church had to demonstrate four (4) elements: (1) it is an religious institution; (2) it is subject to land use regulation; (3) it was treated less equally than a secular institution; and (4) the previous has caused no lesser harm to the interests the aforesaid regulation seeks to advance.  In sum, the Church must identify a similarly situated secular institution treated better than itself in regard to the objectives of the regulation at issue.  The Township persuasively argued that the 2003 Ordinance was to counteract the enormous tax burden on landowners inflicted upon them in large part consequent to the fact that nearly twenty (20) percent of the Township is tax exempt.  The Township also indicated that the purpose of the Ordinance was for the purposes of regulating population density, preserve open spaces, provide for the residents’ recreational needs, as well as expand religious as well as educational facilities.  The Church argued that it would serve the same purposes per the Ordinance as a the construction of a local golf course; although arguably true, the Church failed address the fact that the golf course, contrary to the Church, would increase the local real estate tax base, which is the primary purpose of the ordinance.  Based on the above, the Court ruled in favor of the Township with regard to the application of the 2003 Ordinance.  The Court further ruled against the Church by noting that the 2003 Ordinance treats both religious and secular educational (and/or other tax exempt) institutions equally.

 

The Church next argued that the Township, violating RLUIPA, essentially effected a total ban on religious institutions in the Township.  The Court rejected this argument explaining that the Township did not prevent the Church from being in any other location aside from the Property, nor did it take any action to exclude the Church from the Township altogether.

 

The Court then moved on to ruling on the Church’s Constitutional claims.  At the outset, the Court ruled that any claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 were subject to a two (2) year statute of limitations.  The Court also expressed serious doubts as to whether any statute of limitations applies to a First Amendment challenge.  The Court ruled that virtually all of the Church’s claims regarding the 2003 Ordinance as applied were barred by the statute of limitations as the Church’s complaint was filed more than two (2) years after the state court judgment(s) against the Church.

 

When analyzing the Church’s First Amendment claims, it noted that the free exercise clause does not include land use as a religious exercise.  Therefore, the Church must demonstrate how its inability to be in its desired location affects its religious exercise.  The Court first ruled that the Church was not using the Property for a religious purpose when it requested the 2007 variance, therefore, by definition, the denial of the same could not impair the Church’s religious exercise.  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the Church did not demonstrate how its inability to establish itself at the Property, as opposed to any other location, has affected its religious exercise.  Furthermore, the Church failed to show how threats of fines, allegations of illegal use, and being monitored by the police affected its religious exercise.  Based on the above, the Court ruled against the Church on these issues.

 

The Court further ruled that a law or ordinance meets constitutional muster if it is neutral and generally applicable with only an incidental burden on religious practice.  The Court ruled that the 2003 Ordinance is neutral and was not drafted with the purpose to impair the practice of religion.  It further ruled that the 2003 Ordinance was generally applicable as it addresses both secular and religious institutions equally to further its purpose of increasing the local real estate tax base.  As the 2003 Ordinance is neutral and generally applicable, it is not subject to strict scrutiny; it only must satisfy a rational-basis review.  Using the rational basis test, the Court ruled against the Church because the Church failed to demonstrate that the goal of increasing the local tax base is a constitutionally impermissible goal or that distinguishing between taxable and tax exempt uses is not rationally related to that purpose.

 

When making its Fourteenth Amendment claims, the Church must prove that it was treated differently by the Township as compared to a similarly situated secular institution applying for a variance.  As above, the Church again argued that it was similarly situated to a local golf course seeking a variance, yet, again as above, the Court ruled that the Church failed to adequately consider the 2003 Ordinance’s purpose of increasing the tax base.  The Court ruled against the Church indicating that treating taxable and tax exempt uses differently is rationally related to the purpose of increasing the tax base.

 

In sum, the Church, when making its claims under the RLUIPA and the United States Constitution, simply failed to demonstrate that the actions taken against it were due to its religious affiliation as opposed to some other legally permissible neutral reason.

Originally published on August 21, 2012 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be viewed here.

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