Judge Rules that God is Still Welcome in Millersville, Tenn.
Court Holds City Cannot Deny Ministry's Rights through Legal Maneuverings
Contact: Christy Lynn Wilson, 770-813-0000
WASHINGTON, March 10 /Christian Newswire/ -- Score one for the little guy. And the Big Guy.
The United States District Court for Middle Tennessee ruled that the city of Millersville, Tenn. violated the constitutional rights of Layman Lessons when it threatened application of a "pending zoning ordinance" as a means of blocking the ministry's use of a commercially zoned property.
"The Court rejected the city's contention that, as long as it had a pending ordinance that addressed Layman Lessons' intended use of this property, it could indefinitely delay acting on the ministry's application," said Larry Crain, a senior attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and lead attorney for the plaintiff. "In essence, the court ruled that 'justice delayed is justice denied.'"
Problems arose for Layman Lessons, a Christian ministry formed to aid the homeless and destitute, when it first applied for a use permit for a commercially zoned property in Millersville, a town 17 miles north of Nashville. Shortly after the ministry applied for a permit the city planner, James Lech, issued a letter rejecting the application due to a then-pending ordinance that, if passed, would have limited all religious and non-profit uses on any commercial lot in the city. City Manager Robert Mobley supported Mr. Lech's recommendation. The effect of these actions was to place Layman Lessons' application on indefinite hold.
Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr. concluded that through these maneuverings the city denied Layman Lessons its constitutional rights in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
As a further hurdle to the ministry's use of the land, the city imposed a so-called "buffer strip" requirement on the property. Such strips, which require an expensive privacy fence to be constructed around the property, had heretofore only been required when a commercial property abutted a residential property. The Layman Lessons' property was surrounded on all sides by commercially zoned properties.
The city of Millersville had argued that it could not be held liable under RLUIPA for the actions of employees who were not part of the top echelon of policymakers. Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr. rejected this argument ruling that the actions of the city planner and city manager constituted a violation of RLUIPA. The city will be responsible for a portion of Plaintiff's legal fees.
"Judge Wiseman's ruling confirms that Tennessee is still a place where the rights of the "Davids" cannot be casually usurped by the "Goliaths" of this world," concluded Attorney Crain.
Led by Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, the American Center for Law and Justice focuses on constitutional law and is based in Washington, D.C. The ACLJ is online at www.aclj.org. The ACLJ's online newsroom can be accessed at www.DeMossNewsPond.com/ACLJ.