The City of Morgan Hill’s decision not to rezone the site of a closed hospital to allow for development of a private, Christian college has been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the city did not run afoul of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as San Jose Christian College had alleged.

But in ruling for the city, the Ninth Circuit did not question the constitutionality of RLUIPA, which limits the government’s ability to regulate religious land uses. Previously, the Ninth Circuit had upheld RLUIPA’s constitutionality as it relates to the rights of prison inmates, but the Ninth Circuit has not previously considered RLUIPA’s constitutionality in a land use context.

San Jose Christian College has asked for a rehearing because it disagrees with the court’s assessment of the case’s facts, said Brad Dacus, an attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute, which helped represent the college. Still, Dacus called the Ninth Circuit’s stance on RLUIPA’s constitutionality significant and warned that local governments should ensure that their ordinances comply.

"RLUIPA as a matter of law is just as potent as it ever was," Dacus said. "It’s a very, very powerful civil rights statute."

But John A. Ramirez, of Rutan & Tucker, who argued the case for the city, contended that Dacus was reading too much into the Ninth Circuit’s opinion because the question of the law’s constitutionality was not specifically before the court.

"This opinion is helpful for state and local governments facing this type of litigation because it states quite clearly that RLUIPA is not a magic wand," Ramirez said. "RLUIPA does not provide a free pass … A lot of these people are of the belief that they really don’t have to follow the rules."

Without a dissenting vote, Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997). The new law prohibits government regulation that imposes a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion unless the government proves the restriction is for a "compelling government interest" and it is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest (see CP&DR, May 2002). Since the law’s passage, there has been a great deal of litigation nationwide.

The Morgan Hill situation almost immediately became a test case. In 1999, Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) closed the 60-bed St. Louise Hospital and adjoining medical offices in Morgan Hill. The 30-acre property then went on the market with the restriction that it could not be used for medical purposes, as CHW had moved its operation to nearby Gilroy. The city zoning for the site is "planned unit development," which allows all uses shown on the development plan. But the PUD for the site was directed solely at medical uses.

The college filed an application for a zoning amendment so that the college could develop a school for 1,200 students, outdoor sports fields, a gymnasium, a theater/chapel and dormitories. City planners told the college the application was incomplete because it lacked a site plan, building elevations and a landscaping plan. The college responded with a scaled back version of the application, encompassing only the existing buildings and 400 students. At the same time, the college’s marketing material trumpeted the original, larger project — a conflict that concerned planners because the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) prohibits piecemealing a project. Ultimately, the Planning Commission rejected the zoning application because it failed to comply with the city’s application requirements.

The college then sued the city. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte ruled for the city. The college appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld Whyte.

Among other things, the college argued that the city’s application of its zoning ordinance and CEQA to the project violated RLUIPA because it posed a substantial burden to the college’s religious exercise. The court rejected the argument.

"[I]t appears that College is simply adverse to complying with the PUD ordinance’s requirements," Judge Johnnie Rawlinson wrote for the court. "The city’s ordinance imposes no restriction whatsoever on College’s religious exercise; it merely requires College to submit a complete application, as is required of all applicants. Should College comply with this request, it is not at all apparent that its rezoning application will be denied."

Rawlinson continued, "[T]here is no evidence in the record demonstrating that College was precluded from using other sites within the city. Nor is there any evidence that the city would not impose the same requirements on any other entity seeking to build something other than a hospital on the property."

Moreover, CEQA "adds nothing to the inconvenience otherwise imposed by the city’s zoning application requirements," Rawlinson said. Being required to delineate the scope of development does not burden one’s free exercise of religion, the court ruled.

The court also rejected the College’s arguments that the city violated its rights to freedom of speech and assembly because the college could not convene for education and worship on that specific site. The court held that city’s ordinance and its enforcement of the law were content-neutral. "[T]he fact that the church’s congregation cannot assemble at that precise location does not equate to a denial of assembly altogether," the court ruled.

The Case:
San Jose Christian College v. City of Morgan Hill, No. 02-15693, 04 C.D.O.S. 2029, 2004 DJDAR 2988. Filed March 8, 2004.
The Lawyers:
For the college: John L. Dodd, (714) 731-5572.
For the city: John Ramirez, Rutan & Tucker, (714) 641-5100.