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PW County prevails in zoning dispute with church

Where a church purchased land knowing it was zoned for agricultural use and refused to comply with Prince William County’s requirements for a special-use permi, or SUP, Prince William County did not violate the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

Background

In November 2018, Alive Church of the Nazarene Inc. purchased 17 acres of land — zoned primarily for agricultural use — on which the church sought to conduct religious assemblies. After Prince William County denied the church’s request to worship on its property before the church complied with the zoning requirements, the church filed suit.

The district court dismissed those claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

RLUIPA claims

The church claims that the county’s actions violate the substantial burden, nondiscrimination and equal terms provisions of the RLUIPA. To state an equal terms claim, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) it is a religious assembly or institution, (2) subject to a land use ordinance, and (3) the land use ordinance treats the plaintiff on less than equal terms with (4) a nonreligious assembly or institution.

The church asserts that the district court erred in concluding that the church is not similarly situated to farm wineries and limited-license breweries. The court disagrees. Farm wineries and limited-license breweries are allowed to host special events because those events further agricultural activity. But allowing religious institutions to conduct worship services does not further the purpose of the agricultural zoning ordinance — that is, to promote farming.

Turning to the nondiscrimination claim, that requires evidence of discriminatory intent to establish a claim. Here, the complaint does not allege that the county either passed the agricultural zoning ordinance with discriminatory intent or enforced it in a discriminatory manner. Nor has the church asserted facts sufficient to establish a prima facie claim of religious animus by the county.

Turning to the third claim, the court agrees with the district court that the church’s complained-of burden is self-imposed. That is because the church did not have a reasonable expectation of religious land use without complying with its SUP or the statutory requirements to become a farm winery or limited-license brewery. The church’s substantial burden claim also fails for the independent reason that the impediment to religious land use is not absolute.

Constitutional claims

The church claims that the SUP requirement and the ABC licensure requirement violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Peaceable Assembly Clauses and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Although the agricultural zoning ordinance requires religious institutions to secure a SUP, it does so for the secular purpose of preserving agricultural land. The church has not alleged facts sufficient to claim that the SUP requirement was designed for the purpose of infringing religious exercise.

With respect to the ABC licensure requirement, although it might incidentally burden an agricultural religious institution that wishes to get around its SUP, the church has not alleged facts sufficient to suggest that the county required farm wineries to obtain farm winery licenses, or limited-license breweries to obtain limited brewery licenses, with such a result in mind.

Turning to the church’s peaceable assembly claim, as the district court concluded, the agricultural zoning ordinance is narrowly tailored because it leaves open ample other avenues for assembly. In these circumstances, the church has failed to state a peaceable assembly claim.

Finally, regarding the equal protection claim, as heretofore explained, the church is not similarly situated to farm wineries and limited-license breweries because allowing the church to operate unregulated within the agricultural district undermines the goal of the agricultural zoning ordinance — that is, to promote farming and preserve agricultural land. Contrary to the church’s position, religious institutions and farm wineries or limited-license breweries are distinguishable based on the fact that the latter must be located on producing farms while the former face no such restrictions. Moreover, and as discussed earlier, the church has alleged no facts suggesting that the county passed the ordinance with religious animus.

Affirmed.

Alive Church of the Nazarene Inc. v. Prince William County, Virginia, Case No. 21-2392, Jan. 31, 2023. 4th Cir. (King), from EDVA at Alexandria (Brinkema). Benjamin Paul Sisney for Appellant. Alan Frederic Smith for Appellee. VLW 023-2-026. 34 pp.