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Church sues city for violating its religious rights

The city lost its bid to dismiss a suit that alleges city officials are fining a church’s landlord for allowing the church to meet for Sunday services in a building zoned as a “limited industrial district,” although secular gatherings of large groups are allowed to occur regularly without incident.


Afresh Church filed this lawsuit on Dec. 3, 2018, alleging that defendants, the City of Winchester, and Aaron Grigsdale, the director of zoning and inspections for the city, are violating Afresh’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, or RLUIPA.

The complaint alleges that Afresh has a leasehold interest in a building owned by  Fairmont Avenue Holdings LLC. The building is located in an area of Winchester designated as a “limited industrial district.” Members of the Afresh congregation have  been meeting at the building on Sundays since April 2017. The city has cited the owner of the building several times for allowing the church services to be held at the building because the area in which it is located is not zoned for churches. At the time the complaint was filed, the city had filed a summons for civil penalty in the General District Court seeking $2,200 in fines from the owner for violations of the zoning ordinance.

Motion for abstention

The city argues that the court should abstain from adjudicating this case under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), because of the ongoing proceeding to adjudicate the alleged ordinance violation. The problem is that Afresh, the party asserting the RLUIPA claim, is not a party to the underlying ordinance proceeding. Rather, the owner of the property has been cited for violation of the ordinance, and Afresh will not have an opportunity to raise its RLUIPA claim in that court because it is not a party to that proceeding. Accordingly, the city’s motion for abstention is denied.

Motion to dismiss

In its motion to dismiss, the city argues that Afresh does not have standing to sue and also that Afresh has failed to state a claim for a RLUIPA violation.

The crux of the city’s argument with regard to standing is that Afresh did not actually have a leasehold interest in the building at the time it filed its complaint. The court is required to accept the facts in Afresh’s complaint as true, including the allegation that Afresh had a leasehold interest in the building.

Further, at this stage of the litigation, the court finds that Afresh has stated a claim for relief. Afresh asserts that common and well-known uses of the building included regular gatherings of large groups of people. Afresh claims that it was entitled to rely on its knowledge that secular groups were allowed to gather to infer that a religious group also would be allowed to gather. Accordingly, Afresh has stated a claim that it had a reasonable expectation that it would be able to use the building to host religious services. The city’s motion to dismiss brought under the “substantial burden” clause of RLUIPA is denied and Afresh may proceed on this claim.

Next, while Afresh acknowledges that the city may have an interest in controlling the size of a particular gathering for purposes of noise and traffic, it points out that the zoning ordinance provides for conditional use permits for entities expected to draw a large crowd, such as gymnastic studios, youth activity centers and bus terminals, as well as arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums with some space requirements, but does not allow churches. Afresh also asserts that the city has allowed very large groups to assemble in the zone for one­time events such as festivals and fundraisers, but has fined the owner for allowing Afresh to use the building for religious purposes. Thus, it has  alleged a cause of action under both tests: that the zoning ordinance is not facially neutral and also that it discriminates as applied to religious organizations. Accordingly, the city’s motion to dismiss is denied.

Afresh’s motion for summary judgment is premature and is denied without prejudice to allow the parties an opportunity to conduct discovery.

Defendants’ motions to abstain or dismiss denied; plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment denied.

Afresh Church v. City of Winchester, Virginia, Case No. 18-cv-144, July 1, 2019. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Urbanski). VLW 019-3-306. 18 pp.

VLW 019-3-306