.- The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from an Ohio Christian school that claimed it was singled out for exclusion when a city government denied zoning approval for a new location at a larger building.
The decision lets stand a lower court ruling that sided with the city.
In September 2018 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the zoning ordinance didn’t violate the law. However, dissenting from the ruling was Judge Amul Thapar, who has been listed as a possible Supreme Court nominee for President Donald Trump.
“The government isn’t being neutral toward religion when it chooses to treat religious organizations worse than other entities,” said John Bursch, senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy at the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
Bursch argued that Upper Arlington, a Columbus-area city of about 34,000 people, violated federal law by discriminating against religious groups in zoning matters.
“The government can’t say ‘yes’ to daycare centers and other nonprofit uses of property but say ‘no’ to a Christian school that wants to educate children. For that reason, this issue will come back to the court someday in a different case,” Bursch said May 13.
Tree of Life Christian Schools had aimed to move its three-campus school network to a single campus. It bought the vacant former America Online / Time Warner building. It had hoped to double enrollment to 1,200 students and claimed the relocation would have brought 150 new jobs to the city.
However, the city denied zoning approval for the relocation.
In 2011, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit charging that the city wrongly excluded religious schools from the zone while allowing daycares and secular nonprofits. The lawsuit cited the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars treating religious institutions or assemblies on lesser terms compared with non-religious institutions or groups.
Angela Carmella, a law professor at Seton Hall Law School, said the case focused on whether it is appropriate to consider a locality’s economic goals when deciding whether the religious use law was violated, the news site Bloomberg Law reports.
Shawn Judge, an attorney representing the city, said the building in question is the only large office building in the city and is “the last jewel of economic development in a land-locked inner-ring suburb.”
Zoning intended to encourage office use has “nothing to do with religion” but is “a simple, pragmatic approach to generating enough money to provide city services.”
Bush countered that the city would have received $1 million in tax revenue from the school had it been operating since the beginning of litigation.
Judge has said the school is advancing an interpretation of the federal law that would change it from a tool to fight religious discrimination into a federal mandate that allows any religious claims to invalidate zoning restrictions.
The federal religious use law has been interpreted in eight different ways by eight different courts of appeal.