CINCINNATI – A U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit panel Wednesday reversed a federal district court ruling against a Columbus-area Christian school that was denied zoning approval to relocate its growing four-campus school to a single location. The panel ruled that the district judge should not have granted summary judgment to the city of Upper Arlington and that the school’s challenge should proceed to trial, signaling strongly that Tree of Life should win at trial.
Alliance Defending Freedom filed Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington in January 2011 when city officials denied the school zoning approval after it purchased a vacant building that would accommodate its need for more space and its growth plans. The lawsuit challenged a zoning regulation that prohibits schools within the zone but permits daycare facilities and other similar uses.
“Local governments can’t use zoning laws to discriminate against religious organizations,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, who represents the school. “The appeals court rightly understood that federal law prohibits zoning discrimination against religious land use and that Tree of Life presented a strong case of such discrimination. The court of appeals’ opinion strongly signaled that Tree of Life should prevail at trial and that the city cannot use its zoning code to discriminate against religious land uses under the guise of maximizing tax revenue to the city.”
The 6th Circuit’s opinion noted that “[b]y enacting RLUIPA, Congress directed federal courts to scrutinize municipal land-use regulations that function to exclude disfavored religious groups like TOL Christian Schools.” The city’s main argument in the case has been that it has the power to keep Tree of Life from using its property so that someone else could buy the property who would provide greater tax revenue to the city. The appeals court noted that its “obligation is to apply the statute enacted by Congress. We cannot contort its meaning…. RLUIPA does not allow the government to treat more favorably land uses that, like TOL Christian Schools, fail to maximize the government’s income-tax revenue…. Even the government’s proffered rational basis for its regulation—we want A, we think land use B leads to A, thus we regulate to privilege land use B—does not satisfy RLUIPA’s test.”
In order to consolidate its four overcrowded campuses and 660 students, Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased the former America Online/Time-Warner building in Upper Arlington. The building would allow the school to grow to 1,300 students, but the city denied zoning approval for the school, saying that it wanted the property to be used by someone who would generate more tax revenue to the city. The city’s zoning law, though, allows daycare facilities and other similar uses of equal size that provide less tax revenue than even Tree of Life’s school.
The school’s relocation would provide more than 150 new jobs to the city as well as tax revenue greater than what has been realized from the vacant site in many years.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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