Thursday, May 21, 2009

Code Enforcement Did Not Constitute Substantial Burden on Exercise of Religion

In Westgate Tabernacle, Inc. v. Palm Beach County (4D07-3792) the Fourth District affirmed the trial court's final judgment and held the Palm Beach County code requirements did not constitute a substantial burden on its religious beliefs.


Westgate Tabernacle, Inc. and "its pastors, the Reverends Avis Hill and Sherry McGee-Hill, opened the church property as a shelter for the homeless in Palm Beach County as apart of its Christian mission...Because Westgate was operating a shelter for more than six people without a [proper license], the County issued a May 4, 1998, notice of violation entitled, 'Operating a Homeless Shelter is Prohibited in this Zoning District.' The notice gave Westgate two months to comply or attend a hearing before the Code Enforcement Board for the imposition of fines.Westgate failed to correct the violations, and the Board conducted a hearing...and imposed a $22,700 fine against Westgate for its period of noncompliance. Westgate did not satisfy the debt, and the County imposed a lien on the property...


Westgate filed two multi-count complaints against the County based on a variety of state and federal constitutional doctrines claiming that the County had violated Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, chapter 761, Florida Statutes, and the federal Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.
The party claiming that a government action constitutes a violation of FRFRA or RLUIPA “bears the initial burden of showing that a regulation constitutes a substantial burden on his or her exercise of religion.'


Section 761.02(3), Florida Statutes, defines 'exercise of religion' as 'an act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the religious exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.'


The [County] required a permit for the conditional use as a homeless shelter in the church’s zoning district. 'The mere requirement that one apply for a special exception from an ordinance restricting the use of property is not a substantial burden.'...A church must exhaust its administrative remedies and cannot merely predict that it would be denied the permit if it were to apply. Id. The County informed Westgate in the notice of violation and at the Code Enforcement Board hearing that a CUP was necessary to house more than six individuals. Although Westgate applied for a permit, it withdrew its application. Based on this evidence alone, the jury could conclude that the County did not substantially burden Westgate’s religious exercise.


Neither FRFRA nor RLUIPA prohibits the application of valid, neutral zoning provisions to church property to curtail uses not permitted in the area...Although its shelter has grown beyond a Type 2 facility to a Type 3 facility because it now houses nearly 100 persons at a time, Westgate has not applied for the required permits or received the approval of the Board of County Commissioners. Admittedly, to obtain such a permit would require substantial renovations, because the church does not have sufficient space to house that many people or even provide restrooms for such a number. Nevertheless, it has not proved that the ULDC poses a substantial burden to its religious exercise. The court correctly denied Westgate’s motion for directed verdict. Because we hold that Westgate did not show that the County’s imposition of its permitting requirements constituted a substantial burden on its exercise of religion, the County did not violate FRFRA or RLUIPA. We affirm as to all other issues raised.


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