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Garden State Islamic Center v. City of Vineland

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 12, 2018



          Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez, United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Carmen Di Giorgio, Dale Jones, Gary Lugiano, and City of Vineland pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 (b)(6). The United States of America filed a Statement of Interest on September 5, 2017. The Court granted the parties' request to adjourn the motion and set a briefing schedule. Oral argument was heard on March 14, 2018. For the reasons stated on the record that day, as well as those set forth below, Defendants' motion is denied.

         I. Background

         Garden State Islamic Center brings a claim against Defendants arising out of its construction of a mosque in Vineland, New Jersey. Garden State Islamic Center (“GSIC”) is a New Jersey, not for profit, 501(c)(3) tax exempt corporation, whose primary purpose is to receive, administer, invest and distribute funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes. The Complaint alleges that the Defendants engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices to frustrate GSIC's ability to exist through a series of predatory actions which continued from the approval of the construction of the GSIC building and mosque through GSIC's present day existence in a manner which impedes GSIC's ability to serve its community and diminishes the use of the building. The Complaint sets forth, in detail, the nature of the actions taken, which include withholding permit approvals and a final certificate of occupancy in addition to assessing tax liens against GSIC, despite its exemption as a religious institution.

         The City's continued denial of the Certificate of Occupancy is allegedly related to GSIC exceeding the output contemplated by the septic system permit. In general terms, the septic system permit was granted based upon the information included in the initial plans submitted. Once GSIC was built, the City inspected GSIC and claims it discovered that the building contained additional uses that were not previously identified in the approved original plans. The additional uses in the new plan and re-design of GSIC caused the contemplated water flow values to increase to a point where the combined flow mandated New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection scrutiny. In other words, because of the allegedly altered design and the City's determination that the redesign increased the output of the septic-system, the City declared that it could not issue a Certificate of Occupancy until GSIC could secure a “flow determination” from the NJDEP's Bureau of Non-Point Pollution Control.

         Currently GSIC is operating in a limited manner under the authority of a temporary certificate of occupancy and the Defendants have not moved to collect the assessment of taxes, but the tax bill remains due. Plaintiffs allege violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Plaintiffs bring claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. (Counts I, II), and related claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Counts IV, VI). Of the many issues raised by the City in favor of dismissal, the principal issue to be decided is whether this matter is ripe for adjudication in light of the City's contention that GSIC has not exhausted its administrative remedy with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”).

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 (b) (6)

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint may be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When reviewing a motion to dismiss on the pleadings, courts “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quotations omitted). Under such a standard, the factual allegations set forth in a complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Indeed, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “[A] complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to ‘show' such an entitlement with its facts.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009).

         B. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 cc et seq., “RLUIPA”

         Congress enacted RLUIPA “ ‘in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.' ” Holt v. Hobbs, ___U.S.___, 135 S.Ct. 853, 859, 190 L.Ed.2d 747 (2015) (quoting Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., ___U.S.___, 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2760, 189 L.Ed.2d 675 (2014)). RLUIPA provides, in pertinent part:

No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution ... (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1).

         GSIC, as a plaintiff in a RLUIPA claim, “has the initial burden of demonstrating that the land use regulation ‘actually imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise.” Muslim Ctr. of Somerset Cty., Inc. v. Borough of Somerville Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, No. SOM-L-1313-04, 2006 WL 1344323, at *6 ( N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. May 16, 2006). Upon such a showing, the burden shifts to the City to show that the challenged regulation “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering” that interest. Id.

         Although RLUIPA does not define “substantial burden, ” several courts note that “[t]he goal of the substantial burden provision is to combat[ ] subtle forms of discrimination by land use authorities that may occur when a state delegates essentially standardless discretion to nonprofessionals operating without procedural safeguards.” Hunt Valley Baptist Church v. Baltimore County, Maryland, 2017 WL 4801542 at *24 (quoting Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield Cty., Inc. v. Litchfield Historic Dist. Comm'n, 768 F.3d 183, 196 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Inc. v. City of New Berlin, 396 F.3d 895, 900 (7th Cir. 2005)) (internal citations omitted)).

         The substantial burden claim “does not require a showing of discriminatory governmental conduct.” Andon, LLC v. City of Newport News, Va., 813 F.3d 510, 514 (4th Cir. 2016); Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery Cty. Council, 706 F.3d 548, 557 (4th Cir. 2013) (recognizing that substantial burden provision protects against both discriminatory and non-discriminatory conduct that imposes a substantial burden on religion). To state a substantial burden claim, a plaintiff “must show that a government's imposition of a regulation regarding land use, or application of such a regulation, caused a hardship that substantially affected the plaintiff's right of religious exercise.” Andon, 813 F.3d at 514; see also 146 Cong. Rec. S7, 774-01, 2000 WL 1079346, at *S7777 (“It is important to note that RLUIPA does not provide a religious assembly with immunity from zoning regulation.”)

         Plaintiffs argue that “[i]nvidious motive is not a necessary element, ” but rather “[a]ll you need is that the state actor meant to single out a plaintiff because of the protected characteristic itself.” (Id. at 15 (quoting Hassan v. City of New York, 804 F.3d 277, 297 (3d Cir. 2015)).)

The land-use provisions of RLUIPA are structured to create a clear divide between claims under section 2(a) (the Substantial Burdens section) and section 2(b) (the Discrimination and Exclusion section, of which the Equal Terms [P]rovision [and also the Nondiscrimination Provision are] a part). Since the Substantial Burden[s] section includes a strict scrutiny provision and the Discrimination and Exclusion section does not, we conclude this “disparate exclusion” was part of the intent of Congress and not an oversight.

Id. (citing Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23, 104 S.Ct. 296, 78 L.Ed.2d 17 (1983)).

         RLUIPA's first section (“Substantial Burdens Provision”) prohibits land use regulations that substantially burden the exercise of religion unless the government action can survive a strict scrutiny analysis. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1)-(2); see alsoLighthouse Inst. for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, 510 F.3d 253, 269 (3d Cir. 2007) (“[T]he Substantial Burden[s] section includes a strict scrutiny provision.”). The second section of RLUIPA prohibits discrimination and impermissible exclusion on the basis of religion by prohibiting three distinct types of regulations: (1) land use regulations that treat a “religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution” (“Equal Terms Provision”); (2) land use regulations that “discriminate[ ] against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination” (“Nondiscrimination Provision”); and (3) land use regulations that “totally exclude[ ] religious assemblies from a jurisdiction, ” or “unreasonably limit[ ] religious assemblies, institutions, or ...

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