Supreme Court Will Not Review Judgment Against Boulder County in Church Case

Coverage 01/10/2011

Denver.  The Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider a constitutional challenge to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), leaving intact a federal jury's verdicts that Boulder County, Colorado had violated three separate provisions of the statute in its processing and denial of a 2004 special use application filed by Rocky Mountain Christian Church of Niwot, Colorado.

Following a trial in November of 2008, the jury found that the county treated the church unfairly in the land use process compared to a similarly situated secular school, imposed a substantial burden on the church's exercise of religion, and unreasonably limited the ability of churches to locate within the county.  Based upon the verdicts, the district court then entered an injunction directing the county to approve the church's 2004 application to expand its Niwot facility which is used both as a church and a school.

The Tenth Circuit upheld the jury verdicts and injunction in July of 2010.  The Supreme Court denied the county's petition for certiorari, meaning it will not review the Tenth Circuit's decision.  In two separate decisions, the church has also been awarded approximately $1,450,000 for attorneys' fees incurred by its trial counsel, Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, PC, of Denver, and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C. based law firm, as well as its lead appellate counsel, Williams & Connolly LLP of Washington, D.C.

Alan Ahlgrim, Lead Pastor of the church, said "We're grateful that the legal process is now done and we have been vindicated by yet a third court."  He noted that during the application process the church had spent countless hours and great sums of money trying to comply with the county's requirements and to address concerns of the church's neighbors.  "The expanded facility will be a benefit both for the congregation and the entire Niwot community," he said.

Kevin Baine of Williams & Connolly said he was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision not to review the case because "both lower courts had upheld the jury's finding that the church had been treated less favorably than a secular school in the same position."  According to Tom Macdonald of the Otten Johnson firm, the jury heard extensive evidence comparing the county's treatment of the applications filed by the church and the Alexander Dawson School, which was also located on land with the same zoning and comprehensive plan designations as the church's property and which received approval of an expansion similar in size to total project size sought by the church and that included a gymnasium of roughly the same size as the church requested.

Macdonald said the unreasonable limitation verdict was based upon evidence that the county made it more difficult for churches to operate in the county, had effectively left few sites for church construction and had told a synagogue it could have only 100 seats because the county did not want any more mega churches.  The substantial burden claim was based upon evidence that space constraints had inhibited the church's growth and outreach to new members in a number of ways, he said.

RLUIPA was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000.  "This case demonstrates the ongoing need for civil rights laws like RLUIPA that protect people of all faiths," according to Eric Rassbach of The Becket Fund.  "It is also a testimony to the American commitment to religious freedom for all," he said.