The Ninth Circuit allowed a church to collect damages from the City of Yuma, Ariz., for violating the equal treatment clause of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas v. City of Yuma, No. 09–15422, 2011 WL 2685288 (July 12, 2011). The opinion was authored by a George H.W. Bush appointee and joined by two Clinton appointees.
Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas, a Christian congregation, bought a foreclosed building in Yuma. It did so despite knowing that the city might deny the conditional use permit needed to hold church services so that it could take advantage of the distress sale price. Owners of neighboring properties objected that allowing the church would trigger an Arizona law “prohibit[ing] new bars, nightclubs, or liquor stores within 300 feet” of it, and the city denied the permit on these grounds. The city code, however, allows membership organizations other than religious ones to operate without a permit.
At the time of the instant appeal, Centro Familiar had foreclosed on the property but continued to pursue compensatory damages from Yuma for monetary expenses stemming from the city’s permit denial. The congregation argued that Yuma’s city code regarding conditional use permits violates RLUIPA.
Before turning to the merits of Centro Familiar’s claim, the Ninth Circuit decided that Yuma could be liable for damages for violating RLUIPA through its interpretation of two Supreme Court cases. First, it observed that Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992), allows federal courts to award monetary damages against municipalities unless the statute clearly states otherwise. The instant Court concluded that, since RLUIPA uses the phrase “appropriate relief” found in Franklin and does not explicitly exclude damages, Yuma could be held liable. Second, although Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651 (2011), protects states from damages under Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity that they have not waived, the Court reiterated its statement in Alaska v. EEOC that municipalities do not have sovereign immunity (564 F.3d 1062, 1085-86 (2009), citing N. Ins. Co. v. Chatham Cnty., 547 U.S. 189, 193 (2006)).
Then the Ninth Circuit proceeded to find a violation of the RLUIPA’s “equal treatment” clause, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b). With Centro Familiar’s prima facie case, the city had the burden of persuasion in showing that treatment was equal, with no recourse to compelling government interests if it could not. (By disallowing strict scrutiny defenses, the Ninth Circuit disagreed with Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1232 (11th Cir.2004).) It followed the Third Circuit’s decision in Light-house Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, 510 F.3d 253, 266 (2007) by interpreting “equal” to be with respect to any relevant regulatory purposes.
Applying this test to the facts of the case, the Court found that the city code did not treat Centro Familiar equally with respect to the restriction on liquor licenses the church would have triggered. First, the text of the code targeted religious organizations rather than all the institutions that would limit liquor licenses. Second, the term “religious organizations” was deemed overbroad, since non-church religious organizations do not activate the restriction. Finally, other uses, such as large apartment buildings and prisons, would also have limited bars and nightclubs in practice, but their operators would not have needed to apply for conditional use permits.