A federal court has ordered Sutter County to grant a conditional use permit for a Sikh temple. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the county violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when the county rejected two use permit applications for the temple.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the county had imposed a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion without providing a compelling reason.

The decision had been closely watched, as the case generated amicus briefs by the Department of Justice, The Anti-Defamation League, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and California local government associations.

“The decision shows that a public agency’s failure to prove a compelling interest when denying land use permits to a religious group may lead to both a judicial reversal and a court order affirmatively approving the project,” Bingham McCutchen attorneys Daniel Curtin, Cecily Talbert and Joshua Safran wrote in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

In late September, in response to the court ruling, Sutter County granted the conditional use permit.

The court also very specifically upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA, finding that the law is a permissible exercise of Congress’s remedial power under the 14th Amendment. In an unpublished opinion, a different three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reached a similar conclusion in an unrelated case, Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore, No. 04-5532 (August 22, 2006). Unlike RLUIPA’s predecessor, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997, RLUIPA generally has been faring well in court, although courts have deferred to regulators that provide a compelling government interest.

The Sutter County case involved an application from Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City. In 2001, Guru Nanak had sought a conditional use permit (CUP) to build a 5,000-square-foot temple on a 1.89-acre parcel zoned for low-density residential use. The county allows temples and churches in such zones with conditional use permits, and the county Planning Division recommended approval. However, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the use permit because of citizens’ fears about noise and traffic.

So Guru Nanak acquired a different property, a 28-acre parcel zoned for general agriculture. The land contained a walnut orchard and 2,300-square-foot house, which Guru Nanak proposed to expand by 500 square feet for use as a temple. Guru Nanak submitted a new use permit application, and, again, the Planning Division recommended approval based on a number of conditions, such as limiting the number of people at religious services to 75 at a time. Guru Nanak accepted the conditions, and the Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve the project. However, neighboring landowners appealed, and the Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to overturn the Planning Commission. Supervisors said the project conflicted with agriculture uses, was too far away from the city and amounted to leapfrog development.

This time, Guru Nanak sued. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the county had substantially burdened Guru Nanak’s religious exercise without justifying such a burden, and he ordered the county to approve the use permit.

In reviewing the lower court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit first had to determine whether the county’s denial of the second CUP application was a “substantial burden” under RLUIPA. The law permits government to impose a substantial burden only if it is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

Refusal to approve a land use entitlement is not necessarily a substantial burden under RLUIPA, but the county’s actions went too far for the court.
“Most important to us,” Judge Carlos Bea wrote for the Ninth Circuit, “the history behind Guru Nanak’s two CUP application processes, and the reasons given for ultimately denying these applications, to a significantly great extent lessened the possibility that future CUP applications would be successful.”

“The county imposed a substantial burden here based on two considerations: (1) that the county’s broad reasons given for its tandem denials could easily apply to all future applications by Guru Nanak; and (2) that Guru Nanak readily agreed to every mitigation measure suggested by the Planning Division, but the county, without explanation, found such cooperation insufficient.”

The court pointed out that the county rejected the first proposal because of traffic and noise impacts on neighbors, and rejected the second application partly because the site was too remote. The court also noted that “many other churches already exist on agriculturally zoned land,” including a Sikh temple less than a mile from Guru Nanak’s second location. “Hence the county inconsistently applied its concern with leapfrog development to Guru Nanak,” Bea wrote.

“Because the county’s actions have to a significantly great extent lessened the prospect of Guru Nanak being able to construct a temple in the future, the county has imposed a substantial burden on Guru Nanak’s religious exercise,” Bea wrote.

And because the county conceded it had no compelling government interest for its decision, Judge Karlton properly invalidated the county’s denial of the CUP application, the court concluded.

The court contrasted its decision with the ruling in San Jose Christian College v. City of Morgan Hill, 360 F. 1024 (9th Cir. 2004), in which the court ruled that Morgan Hill’s refusal to rezone a closed hospital for use as a Christian college did not violate RLUIPA (see CP&DR Legal Digest, April 2004). In that case, Bea wrote, there was no evidence that the city would reject the college’s application for a different site in town.

As for the law’s overall constitutionality, the court ruled, “RLUIPA is a congruent and proportional response to free exercise violations because it targets only regulations that are susceptible, and have been shown, to violate individuals’ religious exercise.”

The Case:
Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, No. 03-17343, 06 C.D.O.S. 6959, 2006 DJDAR 10128. Filed August 1, 2006.
The Lawyers:
For Guru Nanak: Michael Barrette, (530) 674-5996.
For the county: Jeffrey Melching, Rutan & Tucker, (714) 641-5100.