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CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania v. Richards

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 19, 2017

LESLIE S. RICHARDS, in her official capacity as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and COLONEL TYREE C. BLOCKER, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police, Defendants


          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge.

         CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania ("CBM") commenced this action against Leslie S. Richards, in her official capacity as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT"), and Colonel Tyree C. Blocker, in his official capacity as commissioner[1] of the Pennsylvania State Police ("State Police"). Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions (Docs. 45, 49) for summary judgment on CBM's claims.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[2]

         CBM is a religious, nonprofit organization doing business under the name "Joy El." (Doc. 46 ¶ 4; Doc. 50 ¶ 1; Doc. 54 ¶ 4; Doc. 57 ¶ 1). CBM engages in three types of ministries: (1) release time Bible education, (2) leadership training, and (3) camps or retreats. (Doc. 46 ¶ 10; Doc. 54 ¶ 10). The release time program provides off-site religious instruction to students whose parents allow them to leave school to attend the program. (Doc. 50 ¶ 2; Doc. 57 ¶ 2). The program is authorized by Pennsylvania law, see 24 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 15-1546, which allows students to attend release time instruction for up to thirty-six hours per school year. (Doc. 50 ¶ 2; Doc. 57 ¶ 2). CBM's release time program is run by over 1, 300 volunteers and serves more than 3, 000 students each year. (Doc. 46 ¶ 11; Doc. 50 ¶¶ 3-4; Doc. 54 ¶ 11; Doc. 57 ¶¶ 3-4).

         The release time program convenes during the school day at churches or community buildings near the school. (Doc. 46 ¶¶ 14, 16; Doc. 50 ¶ 2; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 14, 16; Doc. 57 ¶ 2). CBM does not have a contractual relationship with any school or school district with regard to release time programming. (Doc. 50 ¶ 5; Doc. 57 ¶ 5). The majority of enrolled children travel to the release time program on CBM's fleet of sixteen buses. (Doc. 46 ¶¶ 15, 36; Doc. 50 ¶ 2; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 15, 36; Doc. 57 ¶ 2). At all times relevant hereto, CBM's vehicles passed routine PennDOT inspections. (Doc. 50 ¶ 7; Doc. 57 ¶ 7).

         On September 9, 2015, CBM volunteer Ann Browder ("Browder") drove a CBM vehicle to an elementary school in Franklin County to pick up students for the release time program. (Doc. 46 ¶¶ 24-25; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 24-25). A State Police trooper spoke with Browder at the school and stated that she could not transport students because the vehicle was not inspected by the Pennsylvania State Police. (See Doc. 46 ¶¶ 26-29; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 26-29). State Police troopers again stopped Browder as she drove a CBM vehicle on September 23, 2015. (Doc. 46 ¶¶ 30-33; Doc. 50 ¶¶ 9-10; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 30-33; Doc. 57 ¶¶ 9-10). The officers cited Browder and CBM for violating state regulations concerning school bus safety, to wit: 67 Pa. Code § 171.1 et seq. (See Doc. 46 ¶ 33; Doc. 50 ¶ 10; Doc. 54 ¶ 33; Doc. 57 ¶ 10). CBM did not use its vehicles from September 23, 2015 until December 2, 2015. (Doc. 50 ¶ 12; Doc. 57 ¶ 12).

         CBM filed a complaint in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on October 26, 2015. (Doc. 1 at 9-22). CBM alleged therein that the citation forced CBM to choose between two costly alternatives: grounding its vehicles and paying for other transportation services, or complying with the school bus regulations at an "enormous financial" cost. (Id. at 14). The parties dispute the necessity of "grounding" all of CBM's vehicles from September 23, 2015 to December 2, 2015: CBM avers that the State Police grounded their entire fleet of vehicles, (Doc. 50 ¶ 12), while defendants contend that the State Police grounded only one bus, (Doc. 57 ¶ 12). CBM sought a declaratory judgment that Pennsylvania's regulations concerning school buses do not apply to its vehicles pursuant to the Pennsylvania Declaratory Judgments Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7531 et seq. (Doc. 1 at 16-17). CBM also alleged violations of Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act, 71 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 2401-07, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (Doc. 1 at 17-20).

         Defendants timely removed the case to this court on November 10, 2015. (See id. at 2). CBM filed a motion (Doc. 8) for preliminary injunction on the same date, and the court held a preliminary injunction hearing on November 23, 2015. (See Doc. 64). We granted CBM's motion for a preliminary injunction on December 2, 2015, finding that CBM demonstrated a likelihood of success on its claim under the Pennsylvania Declaratory Judgments Act. (Docs. 21-22). Thereafter, CBM filed an amended complaint, refraining its declaratory judgment claim under the federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, reasserting its Religious Freedom Protection Act and Establishment Clause claims, and adding a claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. (See Doc. 27). Following a period of discovery, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. (Docs. 45, 49). Both motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.[3]

         II. Legal Standard

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon. 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett. 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc.. 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.. 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

         Courts are permitted to resolve cross-motions for summary judgment concurrently. See Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Johnson v. Fed. Express Corp.. 996 F.Supp.2d 302, 312 (M.D. Pa. 2014); 10A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720 (3d ed. 2015). When doing so, the court is bound to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party with respect to each motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Lawrence, 527 F.3d at 310 (quoting Rains v. Cascade Indus., Inc., 402 F.2d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 1968)).

         III. Discussion

         The Pennsylvania Vehicle Code ("Vehicle Code") defines "school bus" as follows: "[a] motor vehicle which: (1) is designed to carry 11 passengers or more, including the driver; and (2) is used for the transportation of preprimary, primary or secondary school students to or from public, private or parochial schools or events related to these schools or school-related activities." 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 102. Regulations promulgated by PennDOT define "school bus" concordant with the Vehicle Code definition. 67 Pa. Code § 171.2. CBM submits that this definition does not apply to its vehicles. (Doc. 27 ¶ 43). Defendants have conceded this point. (Doc. 21 at 5-6).

         The Vehicle Code directs PennDOT to promulgate regulations "governing the safe design, construction, equipment and operation of vehicles engaged in the transportation of school children." 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4551(a). This provision limits PennDOT's regulatory authority to school buses and school vehicles which are "owned by or under contract with any school district or parochial or private school." Id. CBM asserts that its vehicles are unencumbered by this enabling statute because they are not owned or contracted by a school district. (Doc. 27 ΒΆ 43, Doc. 52 at 4-8). Defendants rejoin that the statute encompasses vehicles like ...

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