Argued: April 26, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:15-cv-12793-George C.
Steeh, District Judge.
K. Kelner, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C.,
Joseph Seward, SEWARD PECK & HENDERSON, Royal Oak,
Michigan, for Appellee.
K. Kelner, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C.,
Hiram S. Sasser III, Stephanie N. Taub, FIRST LIBERTY
INSTITUTE, Plano, Texas, for Appellant.
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.
LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.
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
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.
LCS's attempt to relocate its operations to the
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.
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.
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,
visited May 31, 2017). Several options within these areas
were explored, but LCS asserts that only the Church property
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.
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.
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.
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.
LCS's use of other properties
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.
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.