Virtual Voices

Sixth Circuit Court slams religious freedom

Religion

In 2000, Okemos Christian Center sought permission to build a Christian school. Seven years of legal battles later, the church's land is still bare, its school has dissolved, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled against them, seriously threatening the religious freedom of other groups as well.

The church began Dominion Leadership Academy with 16 students and sought permission to build a building large enough for 200 students. The township board refused, claiming that the church brought too much "intensity" to the area. Okemos Christian Center pastor Craig Dumont said the church met every code stipulation, but the township's answer remained the same: "You can have a school, but you can't have a building for your school."

Okemos Christian Center filed a lawsuit in 2004, claiming the board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise. On December 10, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church, creating what Lori Windham, legal counsel for the Becket Fund, called "a really terrible setback for religious liberty."

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The court narrowly defined "substantial burden," saying government action must "place substantial pressure on a religious institution to violate its religious beliefs or effectively bar a religious institution from using its property in the exercise of its religion." Even though the township's stringent regulations closed the school, the court ruled that there was no substantial burden on the church's religious exercise.

Windham told WoW the ruling conflicts with other circuit court opinions, creating "inconsistent standards depending on where you live, what court you're in." Dumont said the ruling "basically gutted" RLUIPA, and if all courts adopted the Sixth Court's definition of substantial burden it will become impossible to prove substantial burden.

Okemos Christian Center and the Becket Fund are exploring legal options, including an appeal to the Supreme Court, and plan to decide on a course of action next week.

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