In Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, 915 F.3d 256 (4th Cir. 2019), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissing the plaintiffs’ suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the “Church”) wanted to operate a church on property in a residential neighborhood that it purchased in 2012. Churches are permitted as of right in the zone where the property is located, subject to setback and buffer requirements. The Church filed a petition to eliminate the setback and buffer and to vary the parking requirements. At a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge a number of neighbors opposed the petition and used hostile and racist comments. The Administrative Law Judge denied the petition, as did the Board of Appeals.
The Church then filed a second petition, which did not require the same variances. The Board of Appeals granted a motion to dismiss the petition on the basis of res judicata and collateral estoppel.
The Church filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, but that court dismissed the Church’s claim. However, on appeal the Fourth Circuit held that the Church’s religious exercise had been substantially burdened.
The Fourth Circuit held that the second petition differed from the first in substantial ways, and it should not have been dismissed on the basis of res judicata or collateral estoppel.
The Fourth Circuit next concluded that the Board may have been influenced by the hostility of the bigoted neighbors. Once a plaintiff shows a prima facia case of religious discrimination, which the Church did, the burden of presentation falls to the defendants. The Fourth Circuit held that a court may not dismiss a claim after an allegation of religious discrimination even if the defendant claims a nondiscriminatory alternative, and even if the alternative appears more probable than not.
The Fourth Circuit also held that the District Court should not have dismissed the Church’s First Amendment free exercise claim and its Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim.
Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that the Church’s claim under Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights should not have been dismissed.
Therefore, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.
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