Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Ninth Circuit Orders Officials to Allow Sikh Group to Build Temple
Panel Says Sutter County ‘Substantially Burdened’ Religious Freedom by Repeatedly Denying Permit
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A county’s repeated denial, on inconsistent grounds, of a religious group’s application for a zoning permit to build a temple imposed a substantial burden on the groups’ religious exercise in violation of federal law, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court upheld U.S. District Court Senior Judge Lawrence K. Karlton’s order requiring Sutter County to grant a conditional use permit allowing the Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City to build a temple.
Judge Carlos T. Bea, writing for the Ninth Circuit, agreed that the county had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“Because the County’s actions have to a significantly great extent lessened the prospect of Guru Nanak being able to construct a temple in the future, the County has imposed a substantial burden on Guru Nanak’s religious exercise,” the judge wrote.
In 2001 Guru Nanak, a non-profit organization dedicated to the teachings and practices of the Sikh religion, applied for a conditional use permit allowing it to build a Sikh temple in an area designated for low-density, residential use in Yuba City. Although the Sutter County Planning Division recommended that the application be granted, the Sutter County Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the CUP at a public hearing based on citizens’ voiced fears that the resulting noise and traffic would interfere with the existing neighborhood.
Under the county’s zoning code, a church or temple may not be built as a matter of right in any of the 22 designated-use district types, but may be built in six of the district types upon receipt of a conditional use permit. The six district types include the four residential district types, the food processing, agricultural and recreation combined district type and the general agricultural district type.
After being turned down for a permit to build in Yuba City, the Guru Nanak purchased property in a general agricultural area outside the city limits, and applied again for a permit, which was approved by the planning commission conditioned on numerous set back and other requirements, which the Guru Nanak accepted.
Several neighbors appealed the commission’s approval to the Board of Supervisors, which unanimously reversed the commission. One of the four supervisors based his decision on the fact that the property was agricultural and should remain so, two expressed concern for “leap-frog” development, and the fourth said the temple “was too far away from the city.”
The Guru Nanak filed suit alleging the county’s actions violated federal law prohibiting governmental action implementing a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Bea said the group was correct.
“[W]e . . . decide the County imposed a substantial burden here based on two considerations: (1) that the County’s broad reasons given for its tandem denials could easily apply to all future applications by Guru Nanak and (2) that Guru Nanak readily agreed to every mitigation measure suggested by the Planning Division, but the County, without explanation, found such cooperation insufficient.”
“The County Board of Supervisors’ denial of Guru Nanak’s second application frustrated Guru Nanak’s attempt to comply both with the reasons given for the County’s first denial and the Planning Division’s various requirements for Guru Nanak to locate a temple on land zoned “agricultural.”
Noting that many churches already existed on agricultural land, Bea found that the county “inconsistently applied its concern with leapfrog development to Guru Nanak.”
The judge said, “At the very least, such inconsistent decision-making establishes that any future CUP applications for a temple on land zoned “agricultural” would be fraught with uncertainty.”
“The net effect of the County’s two denials—including their underlying rationales and disregard for Guru Nanak’s accepted mitigation conditions—is to shrink the large amount of land theoretically available to Guru Nanak under the Zoning Code to several scattered parcels that the County may or may not ultimately approve.”
The case is Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter 03-17343
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company