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Decided: February 9, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In 2012, Walter Terry formed a congregation called the Reconciling People Together in Faith Ministries for religious worship in Newport News, Virginia. Initially, the members of the congregation gathered for worship at a local business owed by Terry but they later sought a larger location that was owned by Andon. The property had been classified as “commercial use” since Andon had owned it. The City’s zoning ordinance only allowed a community facility to be used if it met four conditions. Terry and Andon knew that the property failed to satisfy the “setback” requirement regarding the location of the property to properties zoned for residential use. Knowing this, Terry and Andon still decided to a contingent agreement based on Andon getting approval from the City to use the property as a church. The board of zoning appeals (BZA) denied Andon’s variance request on the setback requirement because denial would not cause Andon a unique hardship. Plaintiffs filed suit claiming the City’s variance denial placed substantial burden on plaintiffs’ religious exercise in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA). The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim and granted the City’s motion to deny the plaintiffs’ request to file an amended complaint.

The plaintiffs alleged that RLUIPA had been violated because as a result of BZA’s action, the congregation had been unable to find a suitable location in the City for worship and the plaintiffs had suffered by the delay in establishing a church location. The plaintiffs relied on a RLUIPA provision that prohibited governmental regulation of land that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of an assembly unless the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The Court found that the plaintiffs could not show the regulation caused a hardship that substantially affected the plaintiffs’ right of religious exercise. The Court distinguished this case from its decision in Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, 706 F.3d 54 (4th Cir. 2013), because here the plaintiffs never had a reasonable expectation that the property could be used as a church. The plaintiffs knew before entering into the contingent lease agreement that the property failed to meet the required setback provision. The assumption of risk that the board of zoning appeals would deny the variance request and the burden it created on the plaintiffs were self-imposed hardships. Self-imposed hardships do not support substantial burden claims under RLUIPA because the hardship was not the result of government action altering a pre-existing expectation of land use. The district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint because the hardship was self-imposed. The plaintiffs would be unable to articulate any set of facts that would survive the City’s motion to dismiss, thus the Court agreed with the district court that any amendment to the complaint would have been futile.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Ryan Jones