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Legal Defense Fund Top 25: Case 22

Living Water Church of God v Meridian Township

Case No: 05 – 2309 (2007)

Issue: RLUIPA – special use permit

Living Water is a growing congregation with educational and daycare facilities in Meridian Township. Living Water owned a six-acre parcel, zoned single-family residential. The township’s zoning ordinance permitted a religious or educational institution in a residential zone only if the institution received a special use permit. In addition, a separate permit was required if the building to be constructed exceeded 25,000 square feet.

In 1994 Living Water received a special use permit for a building of less than 25,000 square feet to be used as a sanctuary and daycare center. In 2000, Living Water received a permit for a 28,500 square-foot elementary school; however, the permit expired in 2001. A special use permit application submitted in 2003 for a building totaling 34,989 square feet was ultimately denied. Living Water claimed that the township’s denial was a violation of RLUIPA.

The federal district court held that the township’s denial imposed a substantial burden on Living Water’s religious exercise, that the denial did not further a compelling governmental interest, and that it was not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

Why did the LDF get involved?
If Living Water’s argument prevailed, a precedent would have been established that would undermine local land use authority to the detriment of the general public and property owners. At stake was the standard to be imposed by courts in determining what constitutes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise and whether Living Water, in this case, would be able to show that the denial of its special use permit satisfies that standard.

What action did the LDF take?
Filed a co-amicus brief with the Michigan Townships Association with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

What was the outcome?
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the township. The Court found that the township’s denial did not place a substantial burden on Living Water in violation of its religious beliefs or effectively bar it from using the property in the exercise of its religion.

Who prepared the amicus brief?
Kenneth C. Sparks
(Bauckham, Sparks, Rolfe, Lohrstorfer & Thall, P.C.)

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