Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 9, 2004


Page 1


Ninth Circuit Rules:

Rezoning Sought by Religious School Was Properly Denied


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


A Silicon Valley city did not deprive a Christian college of its religious freedom by rejecting a rezoning request that failed to meet application requirements set forth in a local ordinance, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

There was no evidence that the City of Morgan Hill treated San Jose Christian College differently than any other applicant, or that it placed an unfair burden on the school’s ability to carry out its religious mission, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson wrote for the court.

The judges affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte of the Northern District of California, who granted the city’s motion for summary judgment. Amicus briefs defending the ruling were filed by the American Planning Association and more than 60 other local governments in California, while the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty took up the college’s cause, with support from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups.

Purchased Hospital

The 70-year-old college bought the former St. Louise Hospital in Morgan Hill from Catholic Healthcare West four years ago, a few months after the facility, which had been the city’s only hospital, closed. The purchase agreement prohibited the school from operating a hospital, and the college intended to move to the site from its smaller San Jose campus.

Because the area in which the property is located is zoned exclusively for hospital use, the college asked for a zoning amendment pursuant to the Morgan Hill City Code. The proposed amendment would have permitted outdoor sports fields, a gymnasium, a theater and chapel, and dormitories, along with other facilities for a student body projected to grow to about 1,200 students in 20 years.

The city concluded that the college’s application was incomplete, and asked for additional information concerning various elements of the school’s proposal, including landscaping, architectural detail, scheduling of classes and sporting events at night, seating capacity for the theater and chapel, and whether the school anticipated substantial numbers of people coming to the campus for Sunday services.

The school then presented what it characterized as a “scaled back” proposal, limited to the proposed uses of existing buildings on the site. The proposal was accompanied by a letter saying the college did “not have a clear enough picture of [its] future facility needs” to provide the requested details.

The school did say, however, that it did not intend to enroll more than 400 students, contrary to its initial proposal.

Even with the scaled-back proposal, the college ran into opposition. The city Planning Commission cited comments in the school’s quarterly publication indicating that it intended to pursue the original proposal, while a task force appointed by the City Council urged that the zoning be retained so that a hospital could be located at the site in the future.

The council voted 4-1 to adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendation that the rezoning be denied on the grounds of failure to complete the application.

The college sued under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, otherwise known as RLUIPA. The statute, which was enacted to replace the Religious Freedom Restoration Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 1996, prohibits public entities that receive federal funds from, among other things, imposing land use restrictions that discriminate on religious grounds or substantially burden the free exercise of religion in the absence of a compelling governmental interest. 

‘Substantial Burden’

 Noting that RLUIPA does not define “substantial burden,” Rawlinson said the term must be interpreted according to its plain meaning.

“[F]or for a land use regulation to impose a ‘substantial burden,’ it must be ‘oppressive’ to a ‘significantly great’ extent,” she explained. “That is, a ‘substantial burden’ on ‘religious exercise’ must impose a significantly great restriction or onus upon such exercise.”

Morgan Hill imposed no such burden on the college, the judge wrote.

While the college claims that the city is blocking it from offering Christian education and transmitting its religious beliefs, Rawlinson explained, “it appears that College is simply adverse to complying with the [zoning] ordinance’s requirements.”

The city has not indicated what action it would take in response to a completed application, nor is there any evidence that the city would object to the college using other sites in the city for religious purposes, the judge said.

Senior Judge William C. Canby Jr. and Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld concurred in the opinion.

The case is San Jose Christian College v. City of Morgan Hill, 02-15693.


Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company