Feds side with church in lawsuit against St. Ignace

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Eric Dreiband is assistant attorney general of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice.

Washington — The U.S. Department of Justice has sided with a Lutheran church in its lawsuit against St. Ignace, supporting the congregation's arguments that the city violated federal law by barring it from operating a church and coffee shop in its business district. 

Hope Lutheran Church sued St. Ignace in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in September, alleging that the city's zoning ordinance violates its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and assembly. 

The church also argued the ordinance treats land use for religious assembly differently than for non-religious uses and, therefore, violated its rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, often abbreviated as RLUIPA. 

That law, adopted by Congress in 2000, said governments could not impose land-use regulations that put a substantial burden on religious activity without a “compelling governmental interest." 

The Trump administration on Tuesday got involved as the Justice Department filed an official "statement of interest" in the case.

It says the problem is the city's ordinance permits municipal buildings, assembly halls and theaters to locate in the "General Business District" but does not allow religious assemblies like churches. 

This "differential treatment" constitutes a violation of RLUIPA on its face, according to the Justice Department. 

“Religious groups in America have the fundamental constitutional right to use land for religious exercise, free from discriminatory restrictions, and to be treated on equal terms with nonreligious groups,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

“The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal civil rights laws protecting religious freedom so that communities across the country can establish and grow their places of worship.”

St. Ignace had argued that churches are not permitted in the business district because they do not align with the city's goals of tax revenue "maximization" and of ensuring the availability of liquor licenses to liquor-serving establishments — which under state law must be a certain distance from churches. 

But the Justice Department says the city's justifications are not valid bases under the law to treat religious groups less favorably than secular ones, noting that other land uses for assembly in the business district are eligible for tax exemption.

"In the instant case, Hope is plainly being treated worse than other assemblies and institutions in the [General Business District] by being excluded from a site it wishes to occupy," Dreiband wrote in the filing. 

"It is irrelevant ... that the city considers Hope to be a 'church' subject to the 500-foot rule imposed by the Michigan Liquor Control Code."

Matthew Cross, representing St. Ignace, declined to comment. 

The case arose after Hope Lutheran, a small congregation of 12 to 18 people, purchased property at 132 S. State St. in downtown St. Ignace.

Leaders planned to use the site, a former laundromat, for outreach activities including a nonprofit coffee shop called Harbor Hope Coffee, which opened in August 2017, according to the complaint. 

The city last year denied Hope Lutheran's application for a property tax exemption, saying the property was not zoned for a church.

St. Ignace also denied the church's request for a zoning variance to allow it to operate in the business district. That denial was later upheld by the city's Zoning Board of Appeals, according to court records.

"The church’s position is simple. Religious groups should not be discriminated against based upon the religious nature of their land use," said attorney Lawrence Opalewski, who represents the church.

"The city’s zoning ordinance for the general business district is discriminatory because it permits nonreligious groups to assemble but not religious groups. The DOJ agrees, and we are grateful for their support."

St. Ignace last month asked the federal court to dismiss the church's complaint, saying the congregation failed to present any facts that it was treated differently than a similarly situated institution. 

Attorneys for the city argue that it has not unreasonably limited Hope Lutheran's ability to practice its faith and that denying its zoning application was not on the basis of religion. 

The city suggested the burden that the church complained of is "self-imposed" for not researching zoning requirements ahead of time and noted the church could operate in three of the city's 10 zoning districts.

"In this case, plaintiff purchased the property at issue before researching zoning requirements and it has a feasible alternative location from which it can fully operate nearby, which it has been renting for years," the city argued in its motion to dismiss. 

The city says the secular assemblies permitted in the business district "do generate tax revenue for the city and create no impediment to the city maintaining the character of the [General Business District] and prioritizing the availability of liquor licenses."

A hearing on motions to dismiss and for a preliminary injunction is set for argument in Kalamazoo on April 1.