D.Ct: RLUIPA valid under Commerce Clause

The District Court of Connecticut denied a Borough and its historic district commission’s (“Defendants”) motion for judgment on the pleadings challenging the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act (“RLUIPA”).  The court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit under RLUIPA against one of the plaintiffs, an individual Rabbi, due to lack of standing.  However, the court denied defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings in response to the suit by plaintiff, Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County (“the Chabad”), seeking relief and damages under RLUIPA due to alleged discriminatory activity by defendants.  Lubavitch v. Borough of Litchfield, Conn., No. 3:09–CV–1419 (JCH), 2011 WL 2471276 (D. Conn. June 21 2011). The judge was nominated by Clinton.

In 2007, the Chabad purchased a building within the Borough on behalf of its parishioners and sought to modify it.  Since the property was located within a historic district, and such modifications must be approved, the Chabad filed the relevant certificate with the historic commission.  After several hearings, the certificate was denied, and the Chabad and its member Rabbi filed suit against defendants under RLUIPA.

First, the court granted the defendants’ 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss the individual Rabbi’s claim under RLUIPA.  The court found that the Rabbi lacked the property interest sufficient to satisfy RLUIPA’s requirements, and did not have any interest independent of the Chabad that would permit him to maintain standing.

In analyzing the defendant’s 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court first dismissed the defendants’ argument that RLUIPA is facially unconstitutional.  The court noted that RLUIPA was constitutional under Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, as any substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ exercise of religion necessarily affects interstate commerce.  It decided that it did not have to address defendants’ separation of powers concerns.  Lastly, the court also determined that RLUIPA survives an Establishment Clause challenge.

The court then proceeded to address the defendants’ remaining arguments regarding the specific pleadings of the Chabad.  It found that the Chabad presented adequate allegations in its complaint to show that the defendants’ rejection of the modification represented a “substantial burden” in exercising their religion, different treatment from similarly situated organizations, and violations of free speech, freedom of association, as well as due process.  As such, the court not only upheld RLUIPA’s constitutionality, but also denied the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings regarding the Chabad’s claims.

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