Zoning Restrictions Deprive Church of Right to Worship

(Courtesy of the Georgia Trial Reporter)

Case Caption:  Kingdom First Ministries v. City of Atlanta
Court:  United States District Court
Settlement: $160,000
Judge: Marvin H. Shoob
Settlement Date: 3/16/2009
Attorneys:
Plaintiff: David A. Cortman, Lawrenceville
                John Mauck, Chicago IL
                J. Lee McCoy Jr., Chicago IL

Defendant: Elizabeth B. Chandler, Atlanta
                                   Peter J. Andrews, Atlanta

Facts:
A new church alleged defendant city deprived it of its constitutional rights by not allowing religious worship in a rented space due to illegal zoning restrictions. Defendant agreed to a $160,000 settlement.

Brenda Gibbons was a pastor who had signed a one-year lease, beginning November 7, 2007, for property located on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard in Defendant City of Atlanta. Ms. Gibbons planned to use the property as a church to be called Kingdom First Ministries, the plaintiff herein. Plaintiff’s rent began at $3,650/month and then increased to $4,400, with a deposit of $6,000. The property was reportedly designated by defendant in the Community Business (C-1) zoning district, in which churches were allowed. Not long after signing the lease, plaintiff applied for a business license, but was informed by an employee of defendant that her property had been rezoned to a Special Public Interest subarea 2 zoning district (SPI-21) and she would have to apply for a special use permit in order to use the property as a church.  Plaintiff applied for the permit in January 2008 and paid the required $400 fee. She also learned she would have to meet with the neighborhood to get approval for the church. Ms. Gibbons met with the West End Neighborhood Development (WEND), but some members were adamant about not wanting a church on her property and told her they would recommend denial of her permit.  WEND also sent emails requesting the denial because it would not bring revenue to the neighborhood. On June 2, 2008, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously to deny the permit, but gave no reason for its decision.  As a result, plaintiff had to operate in a lobby of an office building, which she said impaired the church’s operation and weekly attendance. Plaintiff also still had to pay $5,178 per month for lease payments, utility bills and storage and up to $1,000 per month for the rented office lobby space.

Plaintiff alleged violation of rights under the Constitution for the use of an illegal zoning ordinance to deny the church access to property for religious worship and assembly. Plaintiff further asserted that defendant violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibited government from imposing land use regulation that treated a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a non-religious assembly or institution and placed a burden on the religious exercise of a person or religious assembly. Plaintiff further asserted that defendant’s ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.

Defendant asserted that plaintiff failed to provide an ante-litem notice required by Georgia Code, cause proper service of process and join a necessary and indispensable party. A resolution by the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee authorized a $160,000 settlement, which was adopted by the Atlanta City Council in March 2009.

Alleged Injury: Monetary damages and harm to reputation.  Plaintiff sought a preliminary or permanent injunction requiring defendant to immediately permit it to use its property, as well as an injunction enjoining defendant from enforcing the ordinance. Plaintiff also requested a declaration that defendant’s requirement of churches to obtain special use permits in the district be void and unconstitutional. Plaintiff sought compensatory damages for violations of its constitutional rights and economic losses, plus costs, expenses and attorney fees.

Case Number: 1:08-CV-03100

Editor’s Notes: Plaintiff’s counsel reported that a consent order granting injunctive relief was entered three days after the complaint. Also, counsel said that, as part of the settlement, the City of Atlanta changed its zoning ordinance to bring it in line with RLUIPA.
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