Lawyers from the organization that successfully argued the religious discrimination case of a Colorado cake baker before the U.S. Supreme Court have asked the high court to weigh in on a similar case of an Upper Arlington Christian school.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys last week petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of Tree of Life Christian Schools after an eight-year legal battle with the city of Upper Arlington centering on use of a building within the corporation limits.
The city previously denied zoning approval for the school to relocate its growing, three-campus network to a single location after the school’s purchase of the vacant, former AOL/Time Warner building for that purpose.
ADF attorneys filed Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington in 2011 over the denial on the basis that the city’s decision impedes the school’s plan to serve a greater number of students more effectively.
The suit cited the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning matters, challenging the city’s exclusion of religious schools from the zone while allowing daycare facilities and other secular nonprofits.
“The government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “Upper Arlington’s actions are in defiance of federal law, which prohibits cities from discriminating against religious groups.
“Furthermore, by denying Tree of Life the use of its own building for eight years, the city has forfeited roughly $1 million in tax revenue.”
Stanley said the longer the city bars Tree of Life from using its property, the more money the city and its residents lose.
“Even though Tree of Life shouldn’t have to prove that it will generate tax revenue to occupy its building, the truth is that Tree of Life would generate comparable levels of tax revenue as other secular nonprofit organizations the city allows.”
The original lawsuit challenges the city’s zoning regulation that prohibits schools within the zone in which the former commercial building is situated along Arlington Centre Boulevard just south of Henderson Road.
Similar enterprises, such as daycare centers, however, have operated in the building complex, the attorneys argue.
Armed with a zoning variance, Tree of Life would double the size of its student body to 1,200 students and add in excess of 150 new jobs to the city.
That’s not to mention tax revenue greater than what has been realized from the vacant site in many years, the attorneys added.
The petition to the high court argued that the school has been “stuck with a building it cannot use” for more than eight years now.
The city is adamant that the school’s building house commercial activity to generate tax revenue, despite no requirement in the zoning code, the petition noted.
“The city’s actions are illegal,” the petition continued. “In RLUIPA, Congress enacted an equal-terms provision that guarantees religious assemblies or institutions are not treated ‘on less than equal [zoning] terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution. …’
“But that promise has never been fully realized. A majority of lower courts from coast to coast condemn RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision and refuse to enforce its straightforward command.”
The petition alleged that added requirements water down the federal legislation’s intent, allowing local governments to do as they like.
Twice the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio has ruled against the school. The second ruling was subsequent to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturning the district court’s first ruling. The panel ruled that the district judge should not have granted summary judgment to the city of Upper Arlington and that the school’s challenge should proceed to trial.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.