The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Pellegrini
Argued: February 24, 2009
BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge.
Glenside Center, Inc. (Glenside) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County (trial court) affirming the decision of the Zoning Hearing Board of Abington Township (Board) that its use of an office building for Alcoholic Anonymous meetings was not a use permitted in Abington Township (Township) and was not a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §2000cc(a)(1).*fn1 Glenside also appeals the trial court's decision affirming the Board's denial of Glenside's request for a use variance.
Gary Gordon, DPM (Dr. Gordon) owns property located at 2285 Cross Road, East Building, Glenside, Pennsylvania. The property is zoned in the Special Commercial District (SC)*fn2 which, pursuant to the Abington Township Zoning Ordinance (Ordinance), allows for an F-1 office use in that district.*fn3
Glenside signed a lease with Dr. Gordon on January 14, 2007, to lease a portion of his building for the purpose of holding "group meetings" for members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Debtors Anonymous (DA).*fn4
This matter arose when Glenside received a letter dated March 7, 2007, from Lawrence Matteo, Jr. (Matteo), the Township's Director of Planning and Code Enforcement, notifying Glenside that its use of Dr. Gordon's building pursuant to the Ordinance -- F-5 Professional Services*fn5 -- was not permitted within the SC zoning district in which the property was located.*fn6 Glenside appealed that determination to the Board arguing that it was using the building for office purposes because in addition to the meetings that were held at the office building, the building served as Glenside's administrative offices from which bills were paid and meetings were held concerning the governance of Glenside. In the alternative, it stated that it was seeking a use variance from the Board. It further stated that it was taking the position that the Board had to consider the matter pursuant to the RLUIPA. "While AA or its related organizations do not claim to be an established religion, the constituent groups can and have been viewed as engaging in an exercise of religion. The Act broadly defines religious exercise to include 'any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious beliefs." (April 1, 2007 Letter to Matteo from Patrick McHugh, Esquire, Counsel to Glenside.)
Before the Board, Mr. McHugh testified on behalf of Glenside whom he was representing. He stated that Glenside, a not-for-profit corporation, held 38 meetings a week at the office building with each meeting lasting one hour, with the exception of a handful of meetings lasting one-half hour longer. He stated that the attendance at most of the meetings was 15 to 20 people depending on which night the meeting took place. However, on Saturday nights, when a beginner's meeting was conducted, up to 60 people might attend. Mr. McHugh testified that he was made aware of opposition from neighbors who complained of parking problems, noise and loitering from members attending the meetings. As for the meetings themselves, he stated that Glenside was not a religious organization and none of the meetings were led by a minister, priest, rabbi or other religious/spiritual leader. Further, the materials relating to the AA program specified that AA was not a religious organization.
Also testifying was Clair Moyer (Moyer), the President of Glenside for 17 years. He stated that Glenside did not have any employees and no fees were collected because the sole purpose of the lease was to hold group meetings. Moyer stated that Glenside was incorporated under the non-profit corporation law of 1988 for the purpose of providing meeting locations for AA and admitted that there was nothing in the incorporation papers that indicated the purpose was for any kind of religious purpose. He stated that the only requirement for AA membership was a desire to stop drinking. No one was denied entry into AA. Moyer stated that AA did not have any religious services, there was no endorsement or connection with a religious group, and there was no religious affiliation at all. The same was true for NA and DA. However, AA did encourage its members to seek a connection with a higher power that some people called God or Jesus, but a member did not have to have faith to recover and work the steps of AA. He addressed the neighbors' concerns regarding the noise, trash and parking and how he attempted to cure those problems by meeting with leaders in the community and having a public meeting and utilizing a church's parking lot.
Thomas Deveney (Deveney), a member of AA for 53 years, testified regarding his involvement with Glenside for 45 years. He explained what a typical AA meeting was like and then read the 12 Suggested Steps of AA.*fn7 He testified that AA was a spiritual program and stated the difference between a spiritual program and a religion was that he belonged to a religion and practiced its precepts but AA taught him spirituality.*fn8 When asked if AA encouraged participants to seek contact with a higher power, whatever they might call it, he responded: "Well, they just say, this is what we did. If you want what we have, you better do as we did [and that was to seek a higher power]." (Reproduced Record at 76a.) Deveney stated that AA had members of various religious backgrounds including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and even Atheists. Following his testimony were several AA members who testified that they were from a variety of religious backgrounds. One stated that he had found God at the AA meetings while another testified that the meetings were spiritual and another stated all meetings ended with a prayer.
Various neighbors from the community introduced photographs into evidence showing the adverse parking situation on the street by the office building which made driving difficult and dangerous and prevented emergency traffic from getting through. Other neighbors testified that they observed members of Glenside urinating in public, using obscene language and trash which had been left by members attending meetings.
The Board determined that Glenside's use of the office building was an "E-2 Community Center Use"*fn9 and not an "F-1 Office Use." It then determined that because an "E-2" use was not permitted in the SC zoning district, a use variance was required. However, because granting the requested variance would adversely affect the health, safety and welfare of the public and would be out of character with the surrounding community, and Glenside failed to meet its burden of proving an unnecessary hardship, the Board denied its request for a variance. Regarding the RLUIPA, the Board explained that the Act stated that no government could impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrated that the imposition of the burden on that person was in furtherance of a compelling government interest. The Board determined that Glenside's activities were not a free exercise of religion, the regulations at issue did not impose a "substantial burden" on any of the activities proposed by Glenside, and the Ordinance was not a substantial burden on Glenside's religious exercise because the provision not permitting a community center and group meeting center in the SC zoning district did not constitute a violation of Glenside's right of free exercise of religion in violation of the RLUIPA.*fn10
Glenside appealed to the trial court which affirmed the Board. The trial court addressed Glenside's use of the office building and also concluded that the meetings held at the building did not meet the criteria for an F-1 use which were "primarily office functions." The trial court pointed out that Glenside's lease specified that the purpose of the lease was to provide a place for group meetings and no other purpose and no evidence was presented as to any significant clerical or business activities taking place on the premises apart. Regarding Glenside's request for a use variance, the trial court also agreed with the Board that Glenside failed to present any evidence of a hardship preventing reasonable use of the premises in conformity with the Ordinance. Additionally, the testimony from neighborhood residents regarding parking problems, noise, trash and loitering supported the Board's determination that granting a variance would have been detrimental to the public's health, welfare and safety. The trial court also found that the Board did not err in its determination that Glenside's use was actually a "community center." However, even if the Board incorrectly characterized it as such, Glenside was still not entitled to relief because its use was not an F-1 office building use.
Finally, the trial court found that there was no violation of the RLUIPA because Glenside failed to establish that its use of the office building constituted an exercise of religion. The trial court relied on a pamphlet introduced into evidence that contained the questions whether AA was a religious organization or allied with any religious organization to which both answers were "No." It also relied on testimony that no AA, NA or DA meetings were held to serve any religious belief and no religious ceremonies were held. While there was testimony that AA members were encouraged to ...