The situation didn’t seem that alarming. A Christian school needed to move to more economic, and yet bigger, facilities.
As such schools usually are, the Livingston Christian School in Genoa Township, Michigan, was on a tight budget, but it located a facility available at the nearby Brighton Church of the Nazarene, and made plans for the move.
The local planning commission approved the plan, the community supported it, and even experts summoned by the township endorsed the strategy.
Then the town council rejected the application, a decision that prompted a court case that now is pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The brief there, submitted by First Liberty, warns that the rejection is a violation of federal law because it threatens the very existence of the religious outreach.
“The township threatened the survival of the school as a religious institution because, as the record demonstrates, the school has no viable alternative location,” the briefing to the appeals judges explains.
A lower court judge had found that endangering the existence of the school was not a “substantial burden,” the appeal notes.
“It should be a simple decision,” explained First Liberty. “A Christian school is doing good work preparing children to be productive citizens in its town. The school’s former facility is no longer viable so it finds a new home in a church. This is vital, because the school may not have any other option for its needs in that town. Then the local zoning board recommends approving the zoning permit necessary for the move. The local community supports it. Town experts support it.
“But the town council denies the application, effectively threatening the school’s right to exist as a ministry in the town – and putting children’s religious education at risk.”
“The government is refusing to allow a Christian school to move into a building on church property or, for that matter, anywhere else in town,” Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, said. “That’s wrong. Federal law expressly prohibits the government using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town.”
Livingston had been operating in nearby Pinckney, but it needed more room, and the facility it was in became unaffordable, the legal team said.
“They found only one viable option. LCS entered into an agreement with Brighton Church of the Nazarene to lease one of its buildings to house the school.”
But the plan went down in flames when the township board rejected the presence of the school “anywhere within Genoa Township,” the team said.
At the initial court hearing stage, a judge said the school’s religious liberty had not been “substantially burdened” by the town’s decision, so First Liberty advanced the fight to the appellate level, arguing that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the township was essentially terminating the school’s ability to operate as a religious ministry.
The U.S. Department of Justice says that law is to “protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.”
“First Liberty has won multiple cases using RLUIPA,” said Sasser. “We know this law well. In fact, we won a landmark case, Opulent Life Church v. Holly Springs, in the 5th Federal Circuit Court when a town used zoning regulations against a religious institution. We lost at the district court, but won at the federal appeals court. We hope for the same outcome in this important case.”
The filing explains Livingston “found itself unable to survive as a viable religious institution unless it could move to a larger facility in close proximity to its current and prospective students.”
It literally found itself in a predicament that “posed an existential threat to its survival.”
The only viable option turned out to be renting from the Brighton Church.
The brief noted city officials confirmed that the township board never had acted against the recommendation of the planning commission until its rejection of the school plan.
The principal of the school, in fact, said it lost 15 students because of the fracas, as well as 18 potential students.
Principal Ted Nast said the school’s survival is very much in doubt if it cannot move to the church property.
“Livingston Christian School has no viable alternative but to move to the space it leased at Brighton Nazarene Church,” the pleading suggests. “Unless able to complete the move, it will not be able to continue its religious education mission. …It threatens the school’s very survival.”
It argues since the township had the option of setting conditions it wanted, but simply refused and blocked the project outright, it violated the federal law.
“Congress enacted RLUIPA in order to protect religious organizations, including religious schools like LCS, from improper land use decisions by state and local governments,” the brief explained. “RLUIPA’s sponsors recognized the importance of physical space to the free exercise of religion. ‘The right to build, buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes,'” the brief argues.
It explains the township has “articulated no ‘compelling interest’ that would justify this substantial burden, nor did it use the ‘least restrictive means of furthering’ any purported governmental interest.”
“This case is about survival. LCS’s enrollment has been falling, and it will fall further if the township is allowed to stop LCS from relocating to the only viable location in Genoa Township and in all of Livingston County – the BNC property.”