A north Florida city twice denied a permit for a church to build on a main boulevard but the church took the city to court and prevailed at trial.
The city of Jacksonville Beach denied Church of Our Savior a conditional-use permit because city officials preferred that the church property be used for some other purpose and had zoned it accordingly. But the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Florida ruled Tuesday that federal law prevents the city from engaging in that type of discrimination.
The property, less than 2 acres, is located on a six-lane highway, Beach Boulevard, and sits adjacent to the parking lot for an amusement park on one side and a small neighborhood on another side. It is zoned for single-family residential use but other conditional uses have been allowed in the area by special permit.
Final arguments were made Nov. 10 and a decision was handed down Nov. 25.
“A city’s zoning restrictions shouldn’t target churches for discrimination. The court was right to find that federal law prohibits Jacksonville Beach from using its zoning code to block the church’s religious community services just because the city wants to have property used for other purposes,” said Daniel Dalton, a Michigan lawyer who is one of 2,500 private attorneys affiliated with Alliance Defending Freedom. He represented the church together with ADF-allied attorney Charles Stambaugh of Jacksonville.
The church filed the suit against the City of Jacksonville Beach in October 2013, explaining that its freedoms have been violated under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits zoning discrimination on the basis of religion.
“RLUIPA has been held to be a constitutional exercise of Congress’s authority,” the court wrote in its decision. “Thus, if a ‘religious assembly or institution’ such as the Church proves its case, RLUIPA provides an ‘appropriate’ federal remedy. This is such a case.”
In March 2013, Church of Our Savior, formerly known as Resurrection Anglican Church, applied for a conditional-use permit to build a church on property it purchased to accommodate its growing membership. Although the city’s Department of Planning and Development verified that the church met all of the city’s mandated standards, the Planning Commission denied the permit, claiming “the church was not consistent with the character of the neighborhood.”
The church has been meeting in a rented space at the Beaches Museum Chapel, owned by the local historical society. The chapel is located at 505 Beach Boulevard, just down the road from the newly purchased property.
“A city’s zoning restrictions shouldn’t single out churches for discrimination,” Dalton said. “Federal law prohibits the city from abusing its zoning regulations to shut down existing religious community services just because the city wants to have a building used for other purposes.”
The church submitted a second application in September 2013, but the commission denied it on the same grounds.
“Church of Our Savior can finally build its church and fulfill its mission to serve its community,” said ADF Legal Counsel Joseph La Rue. “We hope other cities considering similar zoning restrictions will take note of this decision and ensure that their codes fully comport with federal law.”
Alliance Defending Freedom is a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.