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Ohio Christian school takes its zoning discrimination case to US Supreme Court

ADF attorneys represent school denied ability to educate in its own building for more than eight years
School Locker

WASHINGTON – An Ohio Christian school blocked from serving students in a building that it has owned since 2010 asked the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to take its case. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Tree of Life Christian Schools filed the petition after an eight-year legal battle with the city of Upper Arlington.

The city denied zoning approval for the school to relocate its growing, three-campus network to a single location. ADF attorneys then filed Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington in 2011 over the denial after the school purchased a vacant building that would accommodate its need for more space and its desire to serve a greater number of students more effectively. Citing the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning matters, the lawsuit challenges the city’s exclusion of religious schools from the zone while allowing daycare facilities and other secular nonprofits.

“The government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “Upper Arlington’s actions are in defiance of federal law, which prohibits cities from discriminating against religious groups. Furthermore, by denying Tree of Life the use of its own building for eight years, the city has forfeited roughly $1 million in tax revenue. The longer the city bars Tree of Life from using its property, the more money the city and its residents lose. Even though Tree of Life shouldn’t have to prove that it will generate tax revenue to occupy its building, the truth is that Tree of Life would generate comparable levels of tax revenue as other secular nonprofit organizations the city allows.”

To consolidate its overcrowded campuses and nearly 600 students, Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased the former America Online/Time-Warner building in Upper Arlington. If it eventually obtains zoning approval, the building will allow the school to double in size to 1,200 students, and its relocation will provide more than 150 new jobs to the city, not to mention tax revenue greater than what has been realized from the vacant site in many years.

“For over eight years, Petitioner Tree of Life Christian School has been stuck with a building it cannot use,” explains the petition that ADF attorneys filed with the Supreme Court explains. “The City of Upper Arlington, Ohio is adamant that the school’s building house commercial activity to generate tax revenue, even though the City’s zoning code does not require that, and the City would readily allow other non-profit activity at the site. So Tree of Life has had to turn away new students because its facilities have been inadequate for its mission, and the City refuses to allow the school to occupy the campus it purchased ….”

“The City’s actions are illegal,” the petition continues. “In RLUIPA, Congress enacted an equal-terms provision that guarantees religious assemblies or institutions are not treated ‘on less than equal [zoning] terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution….’ But that promise has never been fully realized. A majority of lower courts from coast to coast condemn RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision and refuse to enforce its straightforward command. They have added requirements to water down RLUIPA and allow local governments to do as they like…. This Court should grant review, resolve the circuit morass, enforce RLUIPA’s plain text, and halt the widespread discrimination against religious land uses that Congress sought to remedy nearly 20 years ago.”

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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