A federal law protecting religious institutions from land use regulations does not extend to a Masonic Temple operated for commercial purposes, the Second District Court of Appeal has ruled.

Although the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has a broad sweep, it does not encompass commercial enterprises used to fund a religious organization, the court ruled. The court upheld the City of Los Angeles' decision to shut down the Scottish Rite Cathedral in the mid-Wilshire district for failing to abide by zoning conditions.

In the late 1950s, the Scottish Rite Cathedral Association of Los Angeles (SRCALA) received a zoning change and variance to construct a four-story Masonic Temple. (The Scottish Rite is a member of the Freemason family.) Although the facility could accommodate several thousand people, the city approved the project with an undersized, 259-space parking lot based on SRCALA representations that only nonprofit and charitable organizations would use the temple.

For years, SRCALA leased the premises to religious and community organizations with no ties to the Masonic Lodge. After getting numerous complaints about parking, noise and trash from residents of the adjacent neighborhood, the city began public nuisance abatement proceedings in 1993. After hearings, zoning officials concluded the cathedral was a public nuisance and limited usage to Masonic functions and "bona-fide nonprofit non-Masonic organizations." The City Council denied SRCALA's appeal.

The SRCALA responded by closing the cathedral for nearly 10 years. In 2002, the association signed a long-term lease with a new entity called the Los Angeles Scottish Rite Center, LLC, (LASRC) to refurbish the facility and host events. The LASRC events included boxing, concerts, live theater and dance, and religious services. Almost immediately, the neighbors resumed complaining. In early 2004, the zoning administrator tightened conditions to bar use by non-Masonic organizations and prevent the cathedral from charging for parking. When the LASRC ignored the new conditions, the zoning administrator in March 2005 revoked the cathedral's certificate of occupancy, effectively closing the facility to everybody.

The SRCALA and the LASRC sued, arguing that revoking the long-standing certificate of occupancy violated RLUIPA. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien rejected the claim, concluding that Freemasonry is not a religion. The SRCALA and LASRC appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Second District, Division Seven, ruled the city's crackdown did not run afoul of the federal law.

The Second District undertook an analysis that concluded the Masonic principles of the Scottish Rite have many attributes of a religion. But the "threshold question," according to the court, was whether the cathedral was being used for religious purposes. RLUIPA prohibits a government from imposing a regulation that burdens one's religious exercise unless there is a compelling public interest for the regulation, and the regulation is the least restrictive means.

"As broad as RLUIPA's language may be, however, Congress's view of its application was narrower than that espoused by SRCALA and LASRC: Specifically, a burden on a commercial enterprise used to fund a religious organization does not constitute a substantial burden on ‘religious exercise' within the meaning of RLUIPA," Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss wrote for the court.

"In effect," Perluss continued, "SRCALA ceded is right to operate the cathedral to LASRC, a commercial entity with no apparent relationship to Masonic practices other than its name, which then marketed the cathedral as a venue for all events, commercial events included."

In fact, SRCALA president admitted that the group had not conducted Masonic functions at the facility since 1993 and had no intention of doing so in the future, Perluss noted.

The court declined to consider SRCALA and LASRC arguments that the city violated their First Amendment rights, as well as an argument that a 1980 overlay zoning district prohibiting churches violates RLUIPA. The cathedral association has asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.

The Case:
Scottish Rite Cathedral Association of Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles, No. B194230. 07 C.D.O.S. 12361, 2007 DJDAR 15913. Filed October 3, 2007. Ordered published October 17, 2007.
The Lawyers:
For SRCALA: Roger Jon Diamond, (310) 399-3259.
For the city: Tayo Popoola, (213) 978-8068.