Federal judge hears Castle Rock religious training case | Courts

In a case that appears designed to catch the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority, a federal judge heard arguments Monday about whether a Castle Rock church’s religious belief that it should house the homeless is enough to allow the congregation to circumvent the city’s zoning restrictions and continue to operate temporary shelters in their parking lot.

On the surface, The Rock Evangelical Church is seeking a short-term court order that would allow it to continue using a recreational vehicle and camper trailer to temporarily shelter homeless individuals and families, despite the city’s position that the church’s zoning does not permit a residential use.

The Rock Church in Castle Rock, Colo. Source: Church of The Rock, Inc. v. Town of Castle Rock

But U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Domenico expressed concern that a preliminary injunction against the church would mean other religious institutions could also disregard zoning restrictions. More concretely, it may mean that two temporary shelters are exempted from the area code on religious grounds The Rock’s more expansive plans to build homes on their 54-hectare property may also be entitled to a religious exemption.

“There’s a lot more going on. There’s a lot more that your client wants to do with this property,” Domenico told the church’s attorney. “If I grant this injunction … we’re back here and I’m telling the city of Castle Rock they have to allow this much larger project. We’re not just talking about a couple of families. We’re talking about really changing the nature of what happens on that property.”

And, he added, “the city can’t do anything about it.”

In the underlying case, The Rock has used his RV and trailer in recent years to temporarily house people who are homeless. The city, responding to complaints from neighbors, told the church that Castle Rock’s zoning does not allow mobile homes.

A recreational vehicle and camper trailer on the grounds of The Rock Church in Castle Rock, Colorado, which is the subject of a religious freedom challenge. Source: Church of The Rock, Inc. v. Town of Castle Rock

The Rock then filed suit against Castle Rock.

Among other things, a violation of The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that prohibits any land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise. For the government to prevail, it must establish a compelling interest and show that the regulation is the least restrictive method of fulfilling that interest.

Several aspects of the trial suggested that the ultimate audience for its arguments was the Supreme Court. One belonged to the church’s lawyers experienced Supreme Court litigator and First Liberty Institute, which has brought several religious practice cases to the Supreme Court, including the appeal of a high school coach who wanted to lead prayers in public after football games.

The church’s lawyers also noted that they were expressly trying to overrule a 34-year-old Supreme Court precedent on religious freedom. Although Domenico is required to comply, several conservative judges have signaled their interest in partially getting rid of it Employment Division v. Smitha 1990 ruling that largely allows courts to uphold generally applicable, religiously neutral laws that happen to burden religion.

At least three current judges has championed the idea that governments should always have to show that a neutral regulation affecting religious practice is narrowly tailored and promotes a compelling interest — a position The Rock’s lawyers have now taken should the case get that far.

Supreme Court of Washington, Sunday, June 30, 2024.

At the preliminary injunction hearing, Domenico’s primary concern with the church’s position was to avoid a cascade of religious institutions seeking additional exemptions from the city’s zoning code on the grounds that their religious beliefs were burdened without compelling reason. Ultimately, he observed, that could mean land-use codes no longer apply to houses of worship.

“Why couldn’t you or the next church say, ‘We want 10 mobile homes’ or ‘We want to build a small apartment building on our property?’ Wouldn’t the principles you’re asking me to apply here require me to allow that as well?” said Domenico, a Donald Trump appointee.

Misha Tseytlin, the church’s attorney, countered that RLUIPA was “strong medicine” that Congress enacted to provide special protections for houses of faith in land-use decisions.

“To the extent that some citizens would complain about it, I would tell them that, with all due respect, their complaint needs to be to their congressman or their senator or whoever is going to be president,” Tseytlin said.

Daniel Domenico.

The city countered that if the church wanted to change its zoning to allow housing, it could simply go through the normal legislative process, rather than immediately resorting to a federal lawsuit. Further, the 2003 land annexation agreement between The Rock and the city expressly included the church’s acknowledgment that the land use regulations do not place a significant burden on religious practice.

Castle Rock also questioned that the on-site homeless shelter was the only way for the church to exercise its religious beliefs, given that the mobile home and trailer were out of service for much of the church’s existence.

“We question the sincerity of that. Because if it was sincere, where was it in 2003 when they agreed to non-residential zoning of their property and they agreed that it didn’t interfere with their mission?” argued attorney Geoffrey C. Klingsporn for the city.

Domenico acknowledged the church’s other options for helping families make ends meet “all seem like great ideas to me. But if they (the church) say, ‘No, we feel religiously motivated to use this wonderful property we have for this particular purpose ,'” Domenico wondered, “who am I to tell them, ‘No, you should try something else?’

He added: “Are we going to have a trial over what the Bible says about people sleeping in mobile homes on church property? I’m not excited about that prospect.”

The case is Church of The Rock, Inc. v. Town of Castle Rock.

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