Mich. town pulls plug on Christian school
A Christian school looking to relocate in Michigan to a more affordable and spacious facility was blocked by the Genoa Town Council – even though the entire community, including the township’s experts, supported to move.
Fighting a tight budget, Livingston Christian School (LCS) was slated to move into a local facility at Brighton Church of the Nazarene, but then the town council unexpectedly rejected the application – a move that can make the religious outreach close its doors for good.
Law to the rescue?
In a last-ditch effort to keep the school afloat, a lawsuit is now moving forward in the 6th United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
Representing the school in the case, First Liberty argues that the township’s rejection violates federal law because it could make the academic institution cease to exist.
“The township threatened the survival of the school as a religious institution because – as the record demonstrates – the school has no viable alternative location,” the legal group asserts in its brief, according to WND.
Before the suit was brought before the circuit court, a lower court judge ruled that endangering the school’s existence does not pose a “substantial burden.” First Liberty disagrees.
“It should be a simple decision,” the attorneys maintain. “A Christian school is doing good work preparing children to be productive citizens in its town. The school’s former facility is no longer viable, so it finds a new home in a church. This is vital, because the school may not have any other option for its needs in that town. Then the local zoning board recommends approving the zoning permit necessary for the move. The local community supports it. Town experts support it.”
Case and point
The detriment to the students is a focal point of the case.
“But the town council denies the application, effectively threatening the school’s right to exist as a ministry in the town – and putting children’s religious education at risk,” the lawyers added.
First Liberty Institute Deputy Chief Counsel Hiram Sasser elaborated on the argument.
“The government is refusing to allow a Christian school to move into a building on church property or, for that matter, anywhere else in town,” Sasser stressed. “That’s wrong. Federal law expressly prohibits the government using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town.”
Running its school from an inadequately small facility that it could no longer afford in the nearby town of Pinckney, LCS had no other option than to move to a larger and cheaper location.
“They found only one viable option,” Sasser continued. “LCS entered into an agreement with Brighton Church of the Nazarene to lease one of its buildings to house the school.”
Not anticipating any resistance, the school was devastated when the city council put a monkey wrench in its plans.
“But the plan went down in flames when the township board rejected the presence of the school ‘anywhere within Genoa Township,’ the team said.,” WND’s Bob Unruh reported. “At the initial court hearing stage, a judge said the school’s religious liberty had not been ‘substantially burdened’ by the town’s decision, so First Liberty advanced the fight to the appellate level, arguing that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the township was essentially terminating the school’s ability to operate as a religious ministry.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the school is under protection.
“[The purpose of the law is to] protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” the DOJ states.
Sasser appealed to RLUIPA to press his case further.
“First Liberty has won multiple cases using RLUIPA,” Sasser informed. “We know this law well. In fact, we won a landmark case, Opulent Life Church v. Holly Springs, in the 5th Federal Circuit Court when a town used zoning regulations against a religious institution. We lost at the district court, but won at the federal appeals court. We hope for the same outcome in this important case.”
No place to go
According to the lawsuit, LCS simply had no place to go – other than Brighton.
“[LCS] found itself unable to survive as a viable religious institution unless it could move to a larger facility in close proximity to its current and prospective students” the filing reads. “[LCS found itself in a predicament that] posed an existential threat to its survival.”
Brighton was seen as the only light at the end of the tunnel.
“The only viable option turned out to be renting from the Brighton Church,” Unruh explained. “The brief noted city officials confirmed that the township board never had acted against the recommendation of the planning commission until its rejection of the school plan. The principal of the school, in fact, said it lost 15 students because of the fracas, as well as 18 potential students.”
LCS Principal Ted Nast stressed that if his school cannot relocate to Brighton, it will likely shut down.
“Livingston Christian School has no viable alternative but to move to the space it leased at Brighton Nazarene Church,” the pleading reads. “Unless able to complete the move, it will not be able to continue its religious education mission. … It threatens the school’s very survival.”
The brief asserts that because the township could exercise the option of setting its own conditions – but went on to outright reject and block the project – it stands in violation of federal law.
“Congress enacted RLUIPA in order to protect religious organizations, including religious schools like LCS, from improper land use decisions by state and local governments,” the brief informed. “RLUIPA’s sponsors recognized the importance of physical space to the free exercise of religion. ‘The right to build, buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes.”
The attorneys insist that the township’s unjust treatment of the school and its students must be rectified by the 6th Circuit.
“[The township has] articulated no ‘compelling interest’ that would justify this substantial burden, nor did it use the ‘least restrictive means of furthering’ any purported governmental interest,” the legal document asserts. “This case is about survival. LCS’s enrollment has been falling, and it will fall further if the township is allowed to stop LCS from relocating to the only viable location in Genoa Township and in all of Livingston County – the BNC property.”