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Livingston Christian Schools v. Genoa Charter Township

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 2, 2017

Livingston Christian Schools, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Genoa Charter Township, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: April 26, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:15-cv-12793-George C. Steeh, District Judge.


          Robert K. Kelner, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          T. Joseph Seward, SEWARD PECK & HENDERSON, Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Robert K. Kelner, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C., Hiram S. Sasser III, Stephanie N. Taub, FIRST LIBERTY INSTITUTE, Plano, Texas, for Appellant.

          T. Joseph Seward, Lindsey A. Peck, SEWARD PECK & HENDERSON, Royal Oak, Michigan, Carol A. Rosati, Anne McClorey McLaughlin, JOHNSON ROSATI SCHULTZ & JOPPICH, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: MERRITT, GILMAN, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.


          RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

         Livingston Christian Schools (LCS) is a private, nondenominational Christian school with a mission of providing a religiously oriented education to students in Livingston County, Michigan. After operating for several years in the town of Pinckney, LCS sought to relocate. LCS entered into a lease agreement with Brighton Nazarene Church (the Church), located in Genoa Charter Township (the Township), so that LCS could operate its school on the Church's property. Shortly thereafter, the Township informed LCS that an amended special-use permit would be required before the Church property could be used for the school. The Church then applied for such a permit (hereinafter referred to as the "special-use permit") on LSC's behalf. In a four-to-three vote, the Township Board denied the application.

         The Board's action prompted LCS to file a complaint against the Township in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. LCS alleged that the denial of the application for a special-use permit violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. The Township moved for summary judgment in its favor, which the district court granted. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual background

         1. LCS's attempt to relocate its operations to the Church

         LCS describes its mission as providing a Christian education "for the Livingston County Community." From 2006 to 2015, LCS carried out this mission at a building in Pinckney (the Pinckney property). Pinckney is located in the southernmost portion of Livingston County, which is outside of the Township.

         A declaration by LCS's treasurer, Scott Panning, notes that Pinckney is "without easy access to the interstate or major commuter roads, " that the Pinckney area is less populated than the central area of Livingston County, and that Pinckney's population is declining. In addition, Panning explained that the building on the Pinckney property needed extensive, costly maintenance.

         LCS asserts that these problems have led to financial difficulties. At a meeting in November 2012, the LCS Board decided that remaining at the Pinckney property on a long-term basis "will end in the dissolution of the school due to lack of enrollment and income." So LCS resolved to search for another location. LCS wanted to relocate to either "the Brighton or Howell area, " both of which are within Livingston County. There are both cities and townships by the names of Brighton and Howell; LCS did not specify whether the "area" that it had in mind refers to the city, the township, or both. See Municipalities, Livingston County, Michigan, (last visited May 31, 2017). Several options within these areas were explored, but LCS asserts that only the Church property was suitable.

         LCS then entered into an agreement to lease the Church's building for use as a school. According to Panning, LCS was unaware when signing the lease agreement that the Church would need to amend its special-use permit to allow LCS to so operate. After entering into the lease agreement, LCS prepaid the Church $70, 000 in rent and began advertising its new location to prospective students.

         The Township eventually heard about LCS's plans to operate at the Church and informed the Church that the existing special-use permit would have to be amended in order for LCS to use the Church's building as a school. In March 2015, the Church applied for the permit. Two public hearings were held, where several neighbors of the Church expressed concerns about the application. The primary complaints were that (1) LCS's operations would worsen already heavy traffic, and (2) the Church had a history of failing to comply with its previous special-use permits by using its property in ways that neighboring residents found disruptive.

         After the second meeting, the Township's Planning Commission reviewed the application and a traffic study submitted by the Church. The Planning Commission then recommended that the Township Board approve the Church's application with several conditions attached.

         Despite the Planning Commission's recommendation, the Township Board voted to deny the special-use permit in a four-to-three decision at the July 2015 Board meeting. The July meeting minutes did not explain the reasons for the denial, but the August 3, 2015 meeting minutes did. These reasons included traffic concerns, inconsistency with the single-family residential zoning of the surrounding area, the failure of the Planning Commission's proposed conditional approval to mitigate these problems, and the Church's history of noncompliance with the zoning ordinance and with the conditions on the Church's prior special-use permits.

         2. LCS's use of other properties

         After the denial of the special-use permit, LCS entered into a short-term lease with the Whitmore Lake School District in August 2015, which allowed LCS to use the District's former public middle-school building located in neighboring Washtenaw County for LCS's school. Counsel for LCS explained at oral argument that LCS is currently using the Whitmore Lake property under what is essentially a year-to-year lease. But the Whitmore Lake School District has informed LCS that the School District might reoccupy the school building at some point in the future. LCS asserts that the Whitmore Lake property is therefore not a viable long-term option for its school. According to LCS, the Whitmore Lake property is also inadequate for several additional reasons. One is that the property is inconveniently located for LCS's students. The conditions of the lease, moreover, inhibit LCS's efforts to recruit prospective students, to effectively run sports programs, to keep the property secure, and to serve lunch to its students.

         In addition to leasing the Whitmore Lake property, LCS is the owner of the Pinckney property from which it sought to relocate in 2015. Even though LCS owns the Pinckney property, it decided not to continue its operations there when the special-use permit for the Church property was denied. LCS has instead leased the Pinckney property to the Light of the World Academy (LOTWA), a publicly funded charter school, for a term of seven years. The lease was executed on August 20, 2015, after the Township officially denied the Church's application for a special-use permit on August 3, 2015 and after LCS filed its original complaint on August 7, 2015.

         B. ...

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