More than seven years ago, Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased a vacant building. The school planned to relocate its four growing campuses to one central location, which would allow the current student body of 660 to grow to 1,300 students.
But the City of Upper Arlington, Ohio had other plans. City officials denied zoning approval for the school, even though the zoning code allows for daycare facilities and other similar uses of the buildings in that area.
The City claims that it denied the school because the school would not generate tax revenue for the City. Yet if Tree of Life Christian Schools were to relocate, it would provide more than 150 new jobs as well as greater tax revenue for the city – tax revenue it hadn’t received from the vacant site in years.
Despite all of that, though, the bottom line is that this type of zoning discrimination violates federal law. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning matters.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the city more than seven years ago. After a district court ruled against Tree of Life, we appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. This week, ADF attorneys will ask the court to set this right.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that government officials have used zoning laws to block churches and other religious organizations from moving in. The ADF Church Alliance is currently defending two churches, one in Maryland and the other in North Carolina, against this type of discrimination:
- In Laurel, Maryland, Redemption Community Church purchased a building downtown. During the week, the church planned to operate a non-profit coffee shop, holding worship services on Sunday when the coffee shop was closed. But last minute, the city changed the zoning laws to exclude non-profit organizations. A few weeks later the city changed the laws again requiring churches on lots less than one acre to go through a burdensome application process to receive a “special exemption.” In an attempt to work with the government, Redemption Community Church decided to make the coffee shop for-profit and to continue using the space on Sunday morning for worship. But the city told them to stop holding worship services in their building or be fined $250 a day.
- In Monroe, North Carolina, At the Cross Fellowship Baptist Church rented and renovated a building. The building owner assured At the Cross Fellowship that another church had used the same building in the recent past. But when the church sought a certificate of occupancy from the city, it was informed that the zoning law had been changed. Though the city allows that area to be used for “education, training, or resources of a public, nonprofit, or charitable nature,” churches were excluded.
The government can’t discriminate against churches and religious organizations simply because they are religious. Federal law – and the Constitution – requires the government to treat them equally. Unfortunately, that is not happening in these cases. But ADF is dedicated to defending these organizations.
No one should be treated as a second-class citizen simply because of their religious beliefs.