The district court erred in dismissing the plaintiffs’ suit against Baltimore County raising claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiff sufficiently alleged that the County substantially burdened her religious exercise. She sufficiently alleged that she had a reasonable expectation of using her property as a church. Her realtor told her that such a use was permitted on the property, which was correct under applicable zoning regulations.
The allegations are also sufficient to support the plaintiffs’ claim of discrimination based on religion or religious denomination in violation of the Act. The district court reasoned that the complaint failed to allege disparate treatment because other churches that ultimately received approval are situated on larger lots and have sufficient space for parking. However, the Act’s nondiscrimination provision doesn’t require a comparison to similarly situated entities. The church has alleged that the Board’s dismissal of Ware’s second zoning petition was motivated by religious discrimination. This is enough to make out a prima facie claim of religious discrimination, provided that the Church can establish discriminatory intent.
Here, the alleged sequence of events leading to the challenged decision is highly probative of the defendants’ motives. As alleged, neighbors displayed the behavior Congress sought to eradicate from zoning decisions, with remarks evincing ethnic and religious bias. Following the neighbors’ remarks, the Board denied the petition. This connection is strengthened by the neighbors’ ongoing involvement in the dispute, right up through the dismissal of the second petition. The Board also granted the neighbors’ motion to dismiss the second petition, contrary to the position of its own legal expert.
As to the plaintiffs’ free-exercise and equal-protection claims, a government decision fails strict scrutiny if it is not narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest. While the County may have a significant interest in finality and economy that would ordinarily be served by res judicata and collateral estoppel, the second petition’s dismissal on those grounds wasn’t narrowly tailored to serve that interest because it didn’t seek to re-litigate the Board’s prior decision.
Vacated and remanded.