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Constitutional – Denial of church’s zoning requests didn’t violate law

Constitutional – Denial of church’s zoning requests didn’t violate law

Where a church was aware of zoning restrictions when it purchased property, it could not have had a reasonable expectation of religious land use, dooming its claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA. Because the land use restrictions were rationally related to the government’s interest in protecting the region’s watershed, the church’s free exercise claim was rejected.


The court addresses whether Montgomery County, its council and its chief executive complied with the RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when it denied water and sewer category change requests or WSCCRs, submitted on behalf of Canaan Christian Church, when Canaan sought to purchase and develop five neighboring pieces of land from the landowners. The district court denied appellants’ motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment to appellees.

Substantial burden claim

The court utilizes a two-step analysis to determine whether or not a substantial burden is imposed: (1) whether the impediment to the organization’s religious practice is substantial and (2) whether the government or the religious organization is responsible for the impediment.

There is undisputed evidence of an unmet religious need. The burdens described by appellants are an overcrowded facility, the need for multiple services to accommodate the number of members and a lack of space for programs. And it is uncontested that if Canaan wishes to build a church of this size with public sewer access, it would need to find a different property.

However, appellants have not presented evidence that the restriction on religious use is absolute. To the contrary, the county indicated during and after its review of the Canaan WSCCRs that alternatives might have been more successful. Nonetheless, appellants argue the restriction on religious use in this case is absolute despite the fact that the county considered and approved a smaller facility serviced by septic on the property. The fact that there are practical and legal restrictions preventing a larger development on the property does not amount to a RLUIPA substantial burden violation. Therefore, appellants do not demonstrate that they satisfy the first step in the analysis.

Appellants also cannot demonstrate they had a reasonable expectation of religious land use. Because appellants knowingly entered into a contingent sale agreement for property that was expressly excluded from receiving public sewer access under the master plan, they could not have had a reasonable expectation of the county approving their WSCCRs for public sewer access.

Equal terms claim

The 11th Circuit has held that “a plaintiff bringing an as-applied Equal Terms challenge must present evidence that a similarly situated nonreligious comparator received differential treatment under the challenged regulation.” This “similarly situated nonreligious comparator” analysis has been favored by several other circuits, “with most holding that a comparator for an equal terms claim must be similarly situated with regard to the regulation at issue.” The court finds this reasoning persuasive.

Appellants fail to identify a comparator subject to the BCNP that was treated more favorably than Canaan. The history of denied or deferred WSCCRs for both religious and secular developments on the property demonstrate the county’s consistency in applying the master plan when reviewing applications for water and sewer extensions.

Free exercise claim

The BCNP is facially neutral and generally applicable, and appellants fail to offer evidence that the county had a discriminatory motive that would trigger strict scrutiny. Therefore, rational basis is the appropriate level of review here.

Appellants have not shown that BCNP is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. To the contrary, as the district court concluded, the county’s plan to protect the “sensitive” “tributary headwaters, which originate in the [property]” is a legitimate interest and the BCNP furthers that interest by restricting development to prevent damage to the watershed. Thus, the county’s actions withstand rational basis review.



(Richardson, J.): I write separately for two reasons. First, to point out a few minor concerns with the majority’s reading of the equal terms provision of the RIULPA. Second, to expand on the Free Exercise analysis because I believe there is a complication that makes this a closer question than it may at first seem. Neither difference changes my view of the outcome, and I agree that all of Canaan’s claims were properly dismissed.

Canaan Christian Church v. Montgomery County Maryland (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-058-22, 44 pp.) (Stephanie Thacker, J.) (Julius N. Richardson, J., concurring in the judgment) Case No. 20-2185. March 22, 2022. From D. Md. at Greenbelt (Thedore D. Chuang, J.) Roman Paul Storzer for Appellants. Howard Ross Feldman for Appellees. 4th Cir.


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