October 20, 2014

Federal court dismisses lawsuit against Moffatt Township

File photo
The U.S. District Court dismissed Alger Bible Baptist Church's lawsuit against Moffatt Township Feb. 5.
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BAY CITY — Alger Bible Baptist Church’s claim that Moffatt Township violated a federal land-use law was dismissed Feb. 5 by Judge Thomas L. Ludington, who ruled that the township’s zoning ordinance did not infringe on the church’s religious practice.

The church filed a complaint against the township in August 2013, alleging the township’s zoning ordinance, which does not allow churches in the township’s Highway Commercial district, was in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment.

Alger Bible Baptist had attempted to relocate from 1464 Joy Street in Alger to 2030 M-76, but the township would not rezone the property to accommodate the church, spurring the lawsuit.

Ludington’s judgment said the township was sticking to its ordinance by refusing to rezone the property, not restricting the congregation from worshiping.

“Although churches and other religious buildings are not permissible by right in any of Moffatt’s six zoned districts, the same is true for many secular institutions: cemeteries, landfills, day care facilities, lodges and clubs, stables, kennels, bed and breakfasts, and natural resource extraction operations,” he wrote.

According to Ludington, the zoning ordinance says any of those structures, as well as private or public schools, were not permissible, even conditionally, in Moffatt Township’s commercial districts.

Attorney Daniel Dalton, who represented the church, said he believes the court — United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Northern Division — went against past precedence when it dismissed the case.

“The court found that the municipality could zone out churches in favor of a tax base,” he said. “That pretty much flies in the face of the federal law RLUIPA, as well as the last 15 years of case law.”

Dalton said he would have to have a conversation with the church leaders before confirming whether there would be an appeal. He said he did anticipate appealing the decision, though.

Attorney Daniel White, the township’s lawyer, said most of the claims made in the church’s complaint were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they could not be refiled.

“The court addressed a number of different claims that the church had made, and it dismissed with prejudice all but two aspects of the lawsuit,” he said.

The two claims dismissed without prejudice dealt with the church’s claims that the township did not give the church the same equal protection under RLUIPA and the First Amendment that it gave other establishments, White said. If the church attempted to have the case reopened, it would need to give examples of how the township gave other entities preferential treatment, White said.

“They would have to refile with some actual substance behind the claim. That was the problem that the judge saw,” he said. “The church was saying that there were other entities, non-religious entities that were treated better with the church in the district involved.”

White said even if those claims were reintroduced, he does not believe pursuing them would result in the church relocating as it desired.

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