Religious entities that wish to short-circuit the often lengthy zoning application process are tempted to bring a facial challenge under RLUIPA.  As the decision in Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship v. County of Riverside, 948 F.3d 1172 (9th Cir. 2020) demonstrates, this approach can face as many hurdles as the zoning application.

In 1996, Calvary bought a piece of property in an agricultural area of Riverside County, California.  The property was zoned to encourage vineyards and wineries.  At the time, the zoning allowed churches by permit.  Calvary received a permit, built its church and conducted services.

In 2009, Calvary purchased a second piece of property in the same zone, planning to expand its church and construct other facilities.  However, Riverside had amended its zoning 10 years earlier, and no longer allowed churches as of right.  When Calvary submitted a plot proposal, Riverside initially interpreted the zoning to allow Calvary to build.  But a local group, Protect Wine Country, sued in state court, resulting in Calvary’s plan being invalidated.

Calvary then sought an amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow construction of its proposed expansion.  Environmental review dragged on for four years, and Calvary finally filed a facial challenge in federal court.  Calvary relied upon the equal terms and non-discrimination provisions of RLUIPA.  The district court granted Riverside’s motion for summary judgment finding no evidence of discriminatory intent and no violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms section.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  Regarding Calvary’s equal terms claim, the court agreed that “[a]t least on the face of the ordinance, secular and religious places of assembly are treated the same.”  Both types can qualify within the zone as a “special occasion facility,” if at some point they rent out their facilities for compensation.  The court also relied upon Riverside’s representations, in briefing and oral argument, that the existing church could continue as a non-conforming use and any expanded facilities could be used for regular worship services as long as they were rented for compensation once a year.  Calvary’s plan to use the new construction as a wedding venue would have qualified.  Under the circumstances, the court concluded there was no violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms provision, adding “[a]ny consideration of the ordinances application must be left for another day.”

The decision in Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship v. County of Riverside, No. 17-56857 is available here.