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Church of Universal Love and Music v. Fayette County

August 26, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge.


Before me are Plaintiffs' and Defendants' cross-motions for summary judgment. For reasons set forth in my opinion below, I am granting in part and denying in part Defendants' motion and am denying Plaintiffs' motion in its entirety.

I. Factual & Procedural History

This case turns on Pritts' attempt to use his nearly 150-acre tract of land ("the Pritts' property"), which was zoned for agricultural purposes when he purchased it on April 19, 2000, to hold religious services and events for adults and children, which included concerts, hereinafter referred to as "music events." (Complaint ¶¶ 12, 24 and docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶2). Pritts alleges that he purchased this large tract of land because: (1) the congregation of the church that he and his wife founded (Church of Universal Love and Music, hereinafter "CULM") in 1994 had grown in terms of the number of the congregants and thus, more space and larger facilities were needed, (2) the tract of land created a natural amphitheater for the music events, and (3) this tract of land was centrally located for CULM members. (Complaint ¶23, 25-27). At some point subsequent to purchasing the property, Pritts constructed a 40' by 56' pavilion and a 50' by 100' free standing canopy on the Pritts property (hereinafter collectively referred to as the "facility"). (Complaint ¶24). Plaintiffs claim they hosted music events at the facility to accommodate CULM members' religious belief relating to music. (Complaint ¶17, 24 and docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶2).

According to Plaintiffs, CULM "adheres to nondenominational tenets that seek to advance spirituality, religion and love through music." (Docket entry no. 58-2, ¶9). Plaintiffs also assert that CULM's mission is to "advance religion through music and to provide a spiritual resource for all... [and] to create an environment to improve communities and the world by espousing a message of unity, love and appreciation for music, spirituality and our place in it." (Docket entry no. 58-2, ¶10). Plaintiffs claim a core religious tenet is that "religious inspiration and community are advanced by celebration of live music." (Docket entry no. 58-2, ¶10).

A. Plaintiffs' First Petition for Special Exception, (Resolution 01-35 and 01-35/remand)

The parties agree that in April and May of 2001, pursuant to a building permit issued by Defendant-Fayette County, Plaintiffs erected the facility on the Pritts' Property which was used to accommodate various bands, speakers, and musical entertainment. (Docket entry nos. 56 & 61, ¶ 6). On May 16, 2001, Pritts approached the Fayette County Zoning and Hearing Board (hereinafter, "Fayette ZHB") after receiving a notice instructing Plaintiffs to cease holding music events on the Pritts' Property. (Docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶3). That same day, Pritts filed a petition requesting a hearing before the Fayette ZHB to consider granting a special exception to allow Plaintiffs to use the property, zoned as "A-1 Agricultural-Rural" for a "Commercial Recreation Facility." (Docket entry nos. 47-4, 46 & 56, ¶5). In this petition, Plaintiffs stated they were requesting the special exception from the A-1 zoning restrictions, "[t]o provide entertainment and fellowship for people in the community by having music and laughter, at three to four festivals (and religious retreats) per year; and to have fund raisers for non-profit organizations." Ibid.

Defendants admit that on May 16, 2001, the Chief of the Fayette County Office of Zoning, David Bukovan, assisted Pritts in completing the petition for the special exception, but Pritts asserts Mr. Bukovan "directed" him on how to complete the petition. (Docket entry nos. 46 and 56, ¶6). Despite the notation on the face of this petition referencing religious retreats, Bukovan testified during his deposition that Pritts did not mention any religious use at their meeting. (Docket entry nos. 47-4, 46 and 56, ¶ 6).*fn1

On June 27, 2001, the Fayette ZHB held a hearing on Plaintiffs' petition. Based on the reproduced portions of the transcript from that hearing and Pritts' affidavit, Pritts explained that the Pritts' Property would be used for "different events" such as: (1) "have bands play" (and he described the bands as blue grass, gospel, and folk), (2) "festivals for the public," (3) a gun bash for the Turkey Federation; (4) fund raisers for the fire department and some other local churches; (5) picnics; and (6) camping out overnight when music events extended over a weekend. (Docket entry no. 58-2 at ¶44, and docket entry no. 47-5, pp. 11-12). During the same public hearing, Pritts said the concerts would occur five to seven times per year on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and he said he would hold more if there was interest and if weather permitted. (Entry no. 47-6, pp. 32, 57). In addition, he testified that he would not serve alcohol nor allow the sale of alcohol on the premises, but he would permit it to be consumed. He also explained that if a two-day "show" took place, he would allow people to camp overnight on the Pritts Property. (Entry no. 47-5, pp. 34, 44). He stated that he would cap the number of tickets sold to any one "show" at 4,000 and admitted he had no traffic impact study performed. (Entry no. 47-5, pp. 63, 139).

At this same hearing, other citizens, many of whom had property near or adjacent to the Pritts Property, testified. These citizens raised concerns ranging from: (1) a state law which requires a drug free-zone within 1,000 yards of a school; (2) public safety in the form of crowd control for the 4,000 people who might attend the music events; (3) public safety with regard to the consumption of alcohol on the premises and the risk factors associated with individuals drinking then leaving the premises late at night; (4) public safety concerning the one-lane road and one-lane bridge that could be used to access the property and the difficulty for emergency vehicles to access the property in an emergency; (5) public safety for those attending the music events in an area allegedly infested with rattlesnakes, copperheads, wolves and bears; and (6) public safety concerning the immediate neighbors if campfires started brush fires when people camped overnight on the Pritts Property in between music events. (Docket entry no. 47-5, pp. 140-185).

The Fayette ZHB denied Plaintiffs' petition for a special exception on July 25, 2001. (Docket entry no. 47-6). On August 20, 2001, Plaintiffs appealed to the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County. (Docket entry no. 47-7).

On July 21, 2003, the Court of Common Pleas rendered an opinion and order vacating the Fayette ZHB's denial of the petition for a special exception and remanded the case to Fayette ZHB for further proceedings. (Docket entry no. 47-7).

On remand, the Fayette ZHB held public hearings on November 12, 2003 and February 25, 2004, during which time they heard from Pritts and others. (Docket entry no. 47-13). During these public hearings, the Fayette ZHB president said the ZHB was not considering whether CULM was a religious organization but was only considering "the original application" (meaning, the petition for special exception from the A-1 zoning restrictions requesting to use the Pritts Property for "commercial recreational" use). On May 31, 2004, the Fayette ZHB again denied the Plaintiffs' first petition for a special exception to use the property for "commercial recreational" use. (Docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶39 and docket entry no. 47-7).

B. Plaintiffs' First Petition to Rezone the Pritts' Property

On May 28, 2002, after appealing to the Court of Common Pleas, but before getting the remand decision from the Court, Pritts filed a petition for rezoning to use the Pritts Property zoned "A-1 agricultural" as a "commercial recreational facility for musical, fund raising and religious events." (Docket entry no. 47-8). On August 22, 2002, the Fayette County Commissioners' Board held a public hearing on this rezoning petition. (Docket entry 47-8). After taking testimony from Pritts and other citizens, the Commissioners denied Plaintiffs' request for rezoning from A-1 Agricultural to B-1 Business. (Docket entry no. 47-8).

C. Fayette ZHB's and/or Fayette County's Petition for Preliminary Injunction

Before the Commissioners held their August 22, 2002 hearing and denied Plaintiffs' rezoning request, the Fayette ZHB filed petition for a preliminary injunction with Fayette County's Court of Common Pleas. The Court held a hearing on August 27, 2002 at which time it suggested the caption of the preliminary injunction petition be modified to establish that Fayette County, not Fayette ZHB, sought the injunction to enforce the existing zoning restrictions (A-1 agricultural) on the Pritts' Property. (Docket entry no. 47-10). During this hearing, the Court heard testimony from Pritts, as well as three other citizens. (Ibid.) At the end of the hearing, the Court entered a preliminary injunction enjoining Pritts from operating a commercial recreational facility on the Pritts' Property. (Ibid.)

Pritts incorporated CULM on September 27, 2002. (Docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶31). After incorporating, Pritts continued to hold music events on the Pritts' Property and in lieu of charging fees for admission to these events, he asked for donations for CULM.*fn2 (Docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶33). As a result, on June 30, 2003, the Court held Pritts in contempt of the preliminary injunction. (Docket entry nos. 46 & 56, ¶34).

D. Plaintiffs' Second Petition for Special Exception, (Resolution 04-95)

On September 2, 2004, Pritts filed a second petition for "semi-public use - religious nature" seeking permission to use the Pritts' Property for "religious fellowship." (Docket entry no. 47-17). During a February 16, 2005 hearing, members of the Fayette ZHB asked specific questions concerning the religious practices, tenets and organization of CULM. (Docket entry no. 47-18).

On March 17, 2005, the Fayette ZHB convened another hearing at which time Reverend Newell testified as the religious leader of CULM. (Docket entry no. 47-19). On April 20, 2005, the Fayette ZHB denied Pritts'second petition for special exception stating that he "did not meet the threshold for the proposed use in accordance with [Article 2] definitions and words within the definition given their customary meaning." (Docket entry no. 47-20). The Fayette ZHB ruling also noted that Plaintiffs' website "alludes to the fact that one of the basis [sic.] for the formation of [CULM] was to circumvent the zoning regulations" after the ZHB denied his first petition for special exception (resolution 01-35 and 01-35/remand). (Ibid.) The ZHB also cited Pritts' lack of credibility, alcohol consumption by adults and minors along with alleged use of narcotic substances on the Pritts Property, as well as concerns about "public health, safety, convenience, comfort, morals, prosperity and general welfare" as reasons for the denial. (Ibid.)

E. Plaintiffs' Second Petition to Rezone the Pritts' Property

On February 22, 2005, while Plaintiffs' second petition for special exception was still pending before the Fayette ZHB, Pritts filed a second petition for rezoning. He requested that the Pritts Property, which he identified as being zoned "A-1" be rezoned to "B-1, entertainment facility -open air." (Docket entry no. 47-19). This petition was also denied.

Despite the denial of all four of his petitions, Pritts continued to hold smaller religious-based gatherings and events on the Pritts' Property during 2006 and 2007. He has been sanctioned for doing so in violation of the preliminary injunction.

Plaintiffs contend that the music events held on the Pritts' Property are "a central, essential and significant role in the religious practices of CULM," and as such, Plaintiffs claim it is impossible for CULM members to exercise their religion without being able to gather, associate or participate in the religion. Plaintiffs sued Defendants for First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment violations and for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA") seeking declarative relief and monetary damages.

Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment suggesting all claims be dismissed. Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment on its RLUIPA claims.

II. Standard of Review

Under F.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment shall be rendered if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. F.R.Civ.P. 56(c) (2008). An issue of material fact is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

The court must view the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists rests with the movant. Singletary v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 192 (3d Cir. 2001) citing, Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed. 2d 265 (1986). "[T]he existence of disputed issues of material fact should be ascertained by resolving all inferences, doubts and issues of credibility against the moving party." Ely v. Hall's Motor Transit Co., 590 F.2d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 1978) (quoting, Smith v. Pittsburgh Gage & Supply Co., 464 F.2d 870, 874 (3d Cir. 1972)).

III. Discussion

A. Plaintiffs' and Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment

1. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) Claims RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, targets two areas to prevent government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion: land use and institutions. In the instant matter, Plaintiffs based their RLUIPA claims on 42 U.S.C. §2000cc which protects land use as religious exercise. There are two parts to §2000cc: part "(a)" concerns "substantial burdens" while part "(b)" concerns "discrimination and exclusion." Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint alleged that Defendants violated both parts. Both Defendants and Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' RLUIPA claims. Each part will be discussed in turn.*fn3

a. Part "a" - Substantial Burden

The first part of §2000cc contains a "substantial burden" provision which Plaintiffs raise in Count II of their Amended Complaint. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants' denial of their petitions for special exceptions from the A-1 zoning restrictions and/or the Defendants refusal to rezone the Pritts Property, violated the substantial burden section of RLUIPA (42 U.S.C. §2000cc(a)).

Under §2000cc(a), land use regulations which impose a "substantial burden" on the "religious exercise" of a person or religious assembly must further a compelling governmental interest, and be the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest. 42 U.S.C. §2000cc(a)(1).

In an RLUIPA case involving an incarcerated plaintiff who founded his own religion requiring him to read a certain type and number of books per day which conflicted with the State prison's restrictions on the number of books a prisoner could have in his cell, the Third Circuit adopted the Fifth Circuit's definition of substantial burden:

[F]or the purposes of RLUIPA, a substantial burden on religious exercise occurs when a state or local government, through act or omission, puts substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.

Washington v. Klem, 497 F.3d 272, 279-280, n. 5 and n.7 (3d Cir. 2007), citing, Adkins v. Kaspar, 393 F.3d 559, 570 (5th Cir 2004). The Third Circuit then adopted a disjunctive test to be used when determining if a substantial burden exists:

For the purposes of RLUIPA, a substantial burden exists where 1) a follower is forced to choose between following the precepts of his religion and forfeiting benefits otherwise generally available to other [similarly situated persons] versus abandoning one of the precepts of his religion in order to receive a benefit; OR 2) the government puts ...

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