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Fed. Dist. Court in CT Rules Meriden, CT’s Zoning Regulations Discriminatory

This post was originally published on the RLUIPA Defense blog by Evan Seeman, Esq. of Robinson & Cole, and is reposted with permission.

A district court has ruled that the City of Meriden, Connecticut (the City) discriminated against Omar Islamic Center Inc. following the City’s denial of the Islamic Center’s application to move its mosque to another location. The Islamic Center (the Center) outgrew its prior location – a 1,200 square foot space above a pizza restaurant in a neighboring city – and was unable to accommodate the members of the assembly, the number of students interested in its Quran and Islamic Studies classes, and the requirements that men and women have separately for prayer and for the ritual of washing before prayer. The Center found a new site for its mosque at 999 Research Parkway, in the City’s M4 Planned Industrial District. But its special permit application was denied. On cross motions for summary judgment, the court held that the City’s zoning regulations violated the US Constitution’s Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses by treating comparable secular uses better than religious uses.

While the case was pending, the City amended its zoning regulations in an attempt to moot the religious group’s claims. The court sided with the City that the amendment rendered moot the declaratory relief sought by the Islamic Center – a declaration that the zoning regulations were facially discriminatory – because the declaratory relief applies only prospectively. However, the court determined that the regulatory amendment did not render moot the Islamic Center’s claims for damages. The court concluded that the Islamic Center was entitled to damages incurred as a result of the City’s facially-discriminatory regulations. It then held that the City’s zoning regulations were discriminatory because they allowed hotels, motels, convention centers, theaters, different types of shops, stores, and service establishments (bakeries, restaurants, and theaters), as well as institutional, public, and municipal buildings to operate as-of-right in the district, but required a place of worship to obtain a special permit in order to do so.

The City, however, prevailed on the state law Connecticut Religious Freedom Act (CFRA) claim. Because the construction of a house of worship did not constitute a religious exercise under the CFRA, the court entered summary judgment in favor of the City. Finally, the court denied summary judgment on all RLUIPA claims as there was a factual dispute as to whether the Islamic Center had a sufficient property interest under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act statute to proceed.

The decision in Omar Islamic Center Inc. v. City of Meriden (D. Conn. 2022) is available here.