5th Circuit reverses denial of preliminary injunction in church’s RLUIPA suit

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs Mississippi, (5th Cir., Sept. 27, 2012), the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Mississippi federal district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in a Christian church’s RLUIPA zoning suit and remanded the case for further findings.  The appeals court held that the Opulent Life Church had shown irreparable harm by being unable to use a building it had agreed to lease.  On the eve of oral arguments in the 5th Circuit, the city repealed the zoning conditions that had created problems for the church and replaced them with a total ban on religious congregations in the Business Courthouse Square District where the church’s building was located.  Rejecting mootness and ripeness challenges to the lawsuit, the appeals court defined the 5th Circuit’s approach to the “equal terms” clause of theReligious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The court must determine:

whether the religious assembly or institution is treated as well as every other nonreligious assembly or institution that is “similarly situated” with respect to the stated purpose [of the regulation].

The court remanded the case for the district court to decide:

(1) whether Opulent Life is likely to succeed on its claims challenging the validity of the newly adopted religious facilities ban; (2) whether the harm Opulent Life will suffer absent a preliminary injunction outweighs the harm an injunction will cause Holly Springs; (3) the amount of actual damages Opulent Life suffered … and (4)… whether Opulent Life should be awarded reasonable attorneys fees….