Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield (Bishop of Springfield II)

United States Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, No. 11-1117, July 22, 2013: Church’s constitutional and RLUIPA claims against historic district designation not ripe or rejected.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield (RCB) closed the Our Lady of Hope (“Church”), built in 1925. The City of Springfield passed an ordinance (the “Ordinance”) declaring the Church property a historic district under the Massachusetts Historic Districts Act (MHDA) Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40C. Under MHDA, any alteration of the exterior architectural features of the Church are forbidden unless the RCB first applied to the Springfield Historical Commission (SHC) to allow a specific alteration as described in plans and specification and the SHC issued a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability, or a certificate of hardship for those alterations. Although the RCB did not submit an application to the Commission to alter the Church, the RCB immediately challenged the Ordinance in court.

According to the Appeals Court, under Roman Catholic canon law, the RCB has procedures for dealing with architectural religious symbols when a church has been closed for worship. If an eventual new use of the property were one deemed “sordid” by the RCB, the procedures require alterations to those symbols that are not compatible with their preservation in place without alteration.

The RCB’s claims were that the Ordinance, by its enactment and by its potential consequences, gives the SHC veto power over its religious decision making, and in doing so violates its First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion; its rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.; and its rights under the Massachusetts state constitution and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I. The U.S. district court, on cross-motions for summary judgment, found that some of RCB’s claims were not ripe for review and that its remaining claims failed as a matter of law. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield, 760 F. Supp. 2d 172 (D. Mass. 2011). (Preservation Law Digest report available; full text of the district court decision available at http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=167538812952529546&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=2,22&as_vis=1.) The RCB appealed.

Ripeness: The court held that the RCB’s claim based on the enactment of the Ordinance is ripe, but rejected the remainder of the RCB’s claims as not ripe for judgment. The court said the standard for determining whether a matter is ripe is two-fold: (1) “the fitness of the issues for judicial decision and [(2)] the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration.” The fitness test in turn has two prongs: “whether there is a sufficiently live case or controversy, at the time of the proceedings, to create jurisdiction… [and] The prudential component asks whether resolution of the dispute should be postponed in the name of judicial restraint from unnecessary decision of constitutional issues.” (Internal quotations omitted.)

Regarding the enactment of the Ordinance, the court found the ripeness tests were met, so the court could move on to a decision on the merits about the RCB’s claims under RLIUPA, the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution. The court said that the existence of the Ordinance requiring the RCB to submit to the SHC’s authority “presently imposes delay, uncertainty, and expense, which is sufficient to show present injury.”

As to the RCB’s claims based on the potential consequences of compliance with the Ordinance, the key factor in the court’s holding that these claims were not ripe was that the RCB had neither presented to the court nor the SHC any plans to alter the Church. The absence of any such plans made the claim of injury purely hypothetical. “Without knowing what RCB can or cannot do with the Church under the Ordinance, we cannot know to what extent, if any, RCB will suffer from a burden on its religious practice,” the court said. (The Appeals Court’s reasoning on this point was different from the district court’s.) The court held, however, that the district court should not have granted summary judgment to the City on these claims. Instead, the court remanded those claims back to the lower court to be dismissed without prejudice.

RLIUPA Substantial Burden: The court rejected the RCB’s claim that enactment of the Ordinance violates RLUIPA on two grounds. First, RLIUPA prohibits any government land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on a religious institution’s religious exercise (which includes the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise) unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that institution “(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a). Thus, the first issue for the court to decide, as a question of law (there being no contested facts), was whether the enactment created a “substantial burden” within the meaning of this statute.

Noting that the Supreme Court has not defined “substantial burden” in this context, the court chose to identify “some relevant factors” in a “functional approach to the facts of a particular case” to decide if the burdens in that case “may cumulate to become substantial.” The court rejected use of any abstract test. The court then listed three factors that other courts have considered, emphasizing that this is not an exhaustive list: (1) “whether the regulation at issue appears to target a religion, religious practice, or members of a religious organization because of hostility to that religion itself”; (2) “whether local regulators have subjected the religious organization to a process that may appear neutral on its face but in practice is designed to reach a predetermined outcome contrary to the group’s requests”; and (3) “whether the land use restriction was ‘imposed on the religious institution arbitrarily, capriciously, or unlawfully.’”

Applying this analysis to enactment of the Ordinance, the court found the enactment did not fail the first two tests, despite “troubling facts.” (There was no analysis of the third factor.) The court noted that it is in the nature of historic districts that the districts created do not apply automatically to the general population, and “their entire purpose is to prevent only particular property owners in limited areas from changing the appearance of particular properties. The court then found that the “actual, tangible burdens” of the mere existence of the Ordinance on the RCB were not substantial — there were no facts alleged to show that the existence of the Ordinance imposed substantial expenses on the RCB that it would not otherwise have had, and the delay of RCB action until an SHC application decision was not excessively time consuming.

RLIUPA Equal Terms: The court also found that despite the historic district being applied to a single parcel owned by a religious institution, due to the nature of the MHDA and the City’s other designations of historic districts, the Ordinance does not violate RLIUPA’s prohibition against any land use regulation that treats a religious institution “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1).

Constitutional Free Exercise Claims: On these claims, the court subjected the Ordinance to so-called strict scrutiny because, for federal purposes, it is not a neutral law of general applicability, and Massachusetts law applies strict scrutiny even to such claims regarding laws of general applicability. Applying its analysis of the “substantial burden” question under RLUIPA, the court rejected the RCB’s free exercise claim as to the enactment of the Ordinance.

Decision available at http://media.ca1.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/getopn.pl?OPINION=11-1117P.01A.

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