Amicus Brief

Living Water Church of God v Meridian Charter Township et al

Case Year: 2004
Case Forum: United States District Court (Western District)
Keywords: Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), strict scrutiny, substantial burden, special use permit
Amicus Counsel:

Kenneth Sparks | Bauckham, Sparks, Rolfe, Lohrstorfer & Thall, P.C. | 458 W South Street | Kalamazoo MI 49007 | 269-382-4500

CoAmicus Parties:

Michigan Townships Association (MTA)


RLUIPA applies, in pertinent part, to land use regulations involving an “individualized assessment” of property use which impose a “substantial burden” on free exercise of religion. RLUIPA does not define “substantial burden.” While the courts have uniformly found a “substantial burden” on religious exercise where compliance with the challenged law or practice violates a person’s religious beliefs and may subject him/her to criminal sanction or the loss of a significant governmental privilege or benefit, they have been reluctant to find a
“substantial burden” from a law or practice that only causes greater expense or difficulty in one’s religious practice or which renders a specific site unavailable for religious use or expansion. It is in the context of these holdings that Plaintiff’s claim of a “substantial burden” violative of RLUIPA must be examined. The burden of persuasion rests on the Plaintiff to establish that the denial of its special use permit application created a legally cognizable substantial burden on its religious exercise. The denial of Plaintiff’s special use permit application to construct an additional 35,000 square foot building on its subject six acre parcel (thereby allowing a total building area of 45,920 square feet on the parcel) was based on the reasonable
determination of the Defendant Township Board that so much building area on such a relatively small parcel would be out of character with the surrounding area and therefore
not meet the Zoning Ordinance’s standards for special use permit approval. This denial did not require Plaintiff to violate its religious beliefs or cause the loss of a significant
government privilege or benefit, the traditional test for finding a “substantial burden” on religious exercise. Plaintiff was simply prevented from having as much building area on its subject parcel as it would like (i.e., from more than quadrupling the building area on its parcel). To the extent this denial can be shown to impose inconvenience or financial burdens on Plaintiff, such hardship does not rise to the level of constituting a “substantial burden” on religious exercise as that standard has been applied in past judicial decisions.



In accordance with the opinion entered this date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that a DECLARATORY JUDGMENT is entered in favor of Plaintiff Living Water Church of God, d/b/a Okemos Christian Center declaring that the Township’s denial of Plaintiff’s application for an SUP to construct a building in excess of 25,000 square feet violated Plaintiff’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Township is ENJOINED from preventing Plaintiff from proceeding with the construction of a school and church building on its property in conformity with its 2003 request for a special use permit.

MSC requested LDF amicus brief? No

Plaintiff Living Water Church of God is the owner of a six acre parcel of land in Meridian Charter Township, located at 2630 Bennett Road. The property is zoned RA, single family residential, medium density. Under the Meridian Township Zoning Ordinance a religious or educational institution is permitted in a residential zone only if a Special Use Permit is obtained. The Township Ordinance requires a separate and additional Special Use Permit to build a building larger than 25,000 square feet.

Case Number: 2004-05
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