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First Lutheran Church v. The City of St. Paul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 2, 2018

THE CITY OF ST. PAUL, Defendant.

          Thomas P. Kane and Evan Berquist, COZEN O'CONNOR, for plaintiff.

          Portia M. Hampton-Flowers, ST. PAUL CITY ATTORNEY, for defendant.



         First Lutheran Church brings this action against the City of St. Paul, Minnesota, alleging violations of its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), as well as its rights under the constitutions of Minnesota and the United States, including the First Amendment. First Lutheran claims that the City violated its rights when the City imposed fourteen conditions as part of a Determination of Similar Use regarding First Lutheran's partnership with a nonprofit dayshelter that operates out of First Lutheran's basement. One of those conditions requires that a sign be posted restricting after-hours use of First Lutheran's property so that the City can enforce trespassing laws, even though First Lutheran wants to permit such after-hours use of its property. Another condition limits the number of guests to twenty per day.

         First Lutheran moves for a preliminary injunction on its RLUIPA and First Amendment claims, and it asks the Court to enjoin enforcement of all the imposed conditions. Because First Lutheran has shown that it is entitled to a preliminary injunction with respect to the sign-posting requirement and the twenty-person limit, the Court will grant First Lutheran's motion in part and enjoin the City from enforcing those two conditions.



         First Lutheran Church is located in a residential area of St. Paul, Minnesota. (See Compl. ¶¶ 7-9, Apr. 6, 2018, Docket No. 1.) Supporting poor and homeless individuals has always been an important part of First Lutheran's religious identity. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) Over the last decade, First Lutheran has undertaken numerous steps in furtherance of its religious mission to assist the poor and homeless. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11.) For example, First Lutheran served breakfast to over 300 people each Sunday over a three-year span. (Id. ¶ 12; see Decl. of Chris O. Bingea (“C. Bingea Decl.”) ¶¶ 6-7, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 25.) First Lutheran also established a “Wellness Center” on its property where its volunteers and partners provide services to approximately 80-150 people one evening per week, including: free blood pressure checks and health assessments; free mental health counseling; free clothing, blankets, and housewares; free holistic therapy; and a hot meal. (Compl. ¶ 13; see Decl. of Margaret D.A. Peterson (“M. Peterson Decl.”) ¶ 4, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 26.) First Lutheran also has a “Ministering Angels” program that operates on First Lutheran's property and provides gently used clothing and household items to the needy. (Decl. of Darlissa A. McDonald (“McDonald Decl.”) ¶ 3, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 31.)

         Listening House of St. Paul is a nonprofit dayshelter and community center that focuses on providing hospitality and practical assistance to the disadvantaged, homeless, or lonely. (Compl. ¶ 16.) For over 33 years, Listening House operated in downtown St. Paul, approximately half a mile from City Hall. (See Id. ¶ 17.) In 2016, First Lutheran learned that Listening House needed a new location, and in early 2017, First Lutheran agreed to allow Listening House to operate out of First Lutheran's basement. (Id. ¶¶ 23, 30.)

         Both saw the partnership as a natural match. First Lutheran's Council President is a clinical social worker with a 30-year history with Listening House. (Decl. of Bret Byfield (“Byfield Decl.”) ¶¶ 2, 6, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 30.) Listening House's Executive Director attends First Lutheran. (Decl. of Cheryl Peterson (“C. Peterson Decl.”) ¶¶ 1, 5, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 28.) First Lutheran saw Listening House's “commitment to helping those in need with practical and holistic assistance” as “precisely what First Lutheran had been attempting to provide its community for decades.” (Compl. ¶ 19.) Their partnership would enable First Lutheran to expand its ministries and services beyond the neighborhood and into more of St. Paul. (Id. ¶ 20.) For example, Listening House's established reputation as a welcoming dayshelter for the homeless reduced the need for First Lutheran to separately provide similar services to the neighborhood and broader community. (Byfield Decl. ¶ 6.) Additionally, Listening House could provide First Lutheran with access to previously unavailable resources, such as full-time social workers. (Compl. ¶ 70(c).)

         Before Listening House opened its doors at its new location, it sought guidance from the City. (Id. ¶ 24.) Listening House was told that First Lutheran needed to apply for a Determination of Similar Use. (Decl. of Brenda O. Bingea (“B. Bingea Decl.”) ¶¶ 4-5, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 29.) First Lutheran claims that it never had needed to apply for such a Determination before, even though “First Lutheran houses and rents its space many non-profit tenants, some of which provide similar services to Listening House and serve more guests than Listening House.” (Id. ¶ 7.)

         In February 2017, First Lutheran applied for a Determination of Similar Use. (Compl. ¶ 25, Ex. A.) The following month, a City inspector approved First Lutheran's application. (FL00205.)[1] The Determination stated that Listening House's use of First Lutheran's basement would be “similar in character” to “the uses provided by First Lutheran, ” such as its Wellness Center and Ministering Angels, and that Listening House's use would be “similar to other accessory church-related programs.” (FL00204.) The Determination relied, in part, on an analogous 2004 application by St. Mary's church to hold a yoga class on its church property. (See id.) The only three conditions the City imposed were: (1) that Listening House be “limited to uses that are low profile, generate limited traffic, are compatible with the church's presence in the community, and have the potential to complement the activities of the church, ” (2) that Listening House “meet the standards and conditions for ‘home occupation' as listed in” the City's Zoning Code, and (3) that First Lutheran work with Listening House to prevent traffic and congestion on neighborhood streets. (FL00205.) Listening House then moved into First Lutheran's basement and opened its doors on June 5, 2017. (Compl. ¶ 30.)

         The partnership appears to have proven to be the natural match that both had hoped for. Listening House serves approximately 50-60 guests per day. See St. Paul City Council Hr'g at 1:16:57-1:17:30 (Dec. 6, 2017).[2] Many regular guests at Listening House became First Lutheran members, and members of First Lutheran's staff and volunteers became Listening House volunteers. (C. Bingea Decl. ¶¶ 13-14.) On the weeknight that First Lutheran hosts its Wellness Center, one-third to one-half of the Wellness Center guests are also Listening House guests. (M. Peterson Decl. ¶ 4.) Listening House guests also help First Lutheran volunteers set up for the evening's Wellness Center. (McDonald Decl. ¶ 7.) Listening House also allowed First Lutheran to provide previously unavailable resources, including employment help, computer services, and housing assistance. (Decl. of George L. Gevan (“Gevan Decl.”) ¶ 18, May 21, 2018, Docket No. 32.) For Listening House, the new location proved to be a more controlled environment with better security and more volunteers, and guests were more respectful of the physical space. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         Notwithstanding the benefits of this partnership, acrimony quickly brewed nearby. According to First Lutheran, “a subset of several neighbors made it clear that they were opposed to Listening House and its visitors' presence” in the neighborhood. (Compl. ¶ 31.) Neighbors complained to the City of increased foot traffic and people sleeping outside, and of an increase in petty offenses such as littering and public intoxication and urination. Neighbors documented their complaints by, in part, taking photographs of people (e.g., FL00110-142, 231-270), despite being told by police not to (FL00122). Although the neighbors complained to the City and the police about unlawful behavior such as littering, trespassing, public urination, and vandalism (e.g., FL00140, 141, 268), they also expressed frustration that police could not change lawful behavior that the neighbors disliked. For example, a neighbor stated that a person was “sleeping under a blanket on a bench outside of Listening House” between 7:00am and 11:30am. (FL00097.) The neighbor “called the police and an officer responded, but because the church is private property and L[istening] H[ouse] staff are fine with people living outside their doors, the officer told us that there is nothing he can do.” (Id.; see also FL00122.) On another occasion, a neighbor admitted to police that he took a picture of a man sitting on Listening House's steps “because the ‘listening is closed, '” even though the man was not being disorderly or causing a public nuisance. (FL00064.) The neighbor told police “I will do everything I can to shut that place down.” (Id.) And on another occasion, a neighbor called the police because a man was resting on a bench on First Lutheran's property with First Lutheran's permission. (FL00057.) The neighbor “was unhappy with the legal authority of the police in this situation when [police] explained to him.” (Id.) Even if police were not called, neighbors took pictures of people engaged in lawful behavior, such as church volunteers eating lunch “picnic-style” on the church lawn. (Gevan Decl. ¶ 21.)


         The St. Paul Zoning Code requires that any appeal of “a decision of the planning or zoning administrator” be filed within ten days of that decision. St. Paul Zoning Code § 61.701(c). On July 3, 2017 - less than a month after Listening House opened and more than three months after the City's decision - the City informed First Lutheran that it was inviting appeals of its Determination of Similar Use. (FL00208.) First Lutheran alleges that “[p]roviding notice of a right to appeal a determination of similar use is not required under statutes, nor does the Zoning Administrator have a written policy to do so.” (Compl. ¶ 37.) Several of First Lutheran's neighbors appealed the inspector's determination of similar use to the Zoning Committee. (Id. ¶¶ 38-44.) After a public hearing - and after the neighbors, the City, First Lutheran, and Listening House tried to settle their disagreements - the Zoning Committee recommended granting the neighbors' appeal, which would have shut down Listening House. (Id. ¶¶ 43-49.)

         Listening House objected to the Committee's recommendation to the Planning Commission. (Id. ¶ 50.) The Commission adopted a middle-of-the-road approach. It voted to deny the neighbors' appeal in part and modify the Determination of Similar Use, adding eleven conditions. (Id. ¶ 52.) The fourteen total conditions imposed are:

1. The nonprofit tenant is limited to uses that are low profile, generate limited traffic, are compatible with the church's presence in the community, and have the potential to complement the activities of the church.
2. Tenants shall meet the standards and conditions for “home occupation” as listed in Section 65.141 b, c, g and h of the Zoning Code, . . . .
(b) A home occupation shall not involve the conduct of a general retail or wholesale business, a manufacturing business, a commercial food service requiring a license, a limousine business or auto service or repair.
(c) A home occupation shall be carried on whole[ly] within the main building. No occupation shall be allowed in detached accessory structures or garages.
(g) There shall be no exterior storage of equipment, supplies, or overweight commercial vehicles, nor parking of more than one (1) business car, pickup truck or small van, nor any additional vehicles except one business car, pickup truck or small van, nor any additional vehicles except those for permitted employees associated with the home business.
(h) There shall be no detriments to the residential character of the neighborhood due to noise, odor, smoke dust, gas, heat, glare, vibration, electrical interference, traffic congestion, number of deliveries, hours of operation, or any other annoyance resulting from the home occupation.
3. The church shall work with Listening House to prevent scheduling of multiple events that, taken together, would generate considerable traffic and congest neighborhood streets.
4. Hours of operation shall be limited to 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
5. Listening House will ensure that guests have left the area after Listening House has closed and will provide bus fares to its guests. Listening House staff must be on-site for two hours before and two hours after the times guests are served at the facility.
6. Listening House will not allow the consumption of alcohol or controlled substances anywhere on the First Lutheran Church properties.
7. Listening House will call emergency services when a guest is engaged in behavior that is harmful to self or others.
8. Listening House will give notice on a shared Google site of serious incidents observed that involve their guests.
9. No outdoor patio may exist anywhere on church grounds during Listening House's tenancy.
10. A sign must be posted in a plainly visible location to restrict after-hours use of the church grounds so as to aid in the enforcement of trespassing violations by Listening House guests or other persons when Listening House is closed.
11. Listening House will attend community policing meetings as invited by the Saint Paul Police Department.
12. Listening House will review on a daily basis their own camera footage and an online log maintained by neighbors in order to identify issues of concern and potential intervention.
13. Listening House will post guest policies regarding “good neighbor” expectations and consequences, including suspension or barring from Listening House and the church properties. Such policies must be readily visible to guests. Also, the policies must be provided to neighbors and the Zoning Administrator upon request.
14. The number of guests will generally be limited to 20 per day. . . .

(FL00143-146.) In support of the additional conditions imposed, the Commission made two findings. First, that Listening House “has not operated like a home occupation because of its detrimental effect on the neighborhood, with an increase in issues such as littering, public urination, and sleeping in outdoor public and private spaces causing such detriment, including during hours when the facility is closed.” (FL00144.) Second, the City found that Listening House “has not been compatible with the church's presence in the community.” (Id.)

         Both Listening House and the neighbors appealed the Planning Commission's decision to the City Council. (Compl. ¶¶ 54, 56.) During the City Council's public hearing in December 2017, City Planner Bill Dermody was asked about the Planning Commission's basis for imposing the twenty-person limit. St. Paul City Council Hr'g at 1:10:20. He stated:

We do have some guidance from the previous approval of another church with the yoga use where that use was limited to ten persons per day to make it act like an accessory use and be clearly incidental. On that site, ten per day has worked. We haven't had issues or complaints at that site. And so, if ten worked on that site, hopefully twenty would work on this, on this site.

Id. at 1:10:30-1:10:55. The City Council denied both appeals and passed Resolution 18-145, which adopted the Planning Commission's recommendation. (Compl. ¶¶ 61-62.) Resolution 18-145 is the City's final decision on the matter. (Id. ¶ 62.)

         First Lutheran then brought this action in federal court. First Lutheran alleges violations of RLUIPA in two ways: (1) Resolution 18-145 substantially burdens First Lutheran's religious exercise, does not further a compelling government interest, and is not the least restrictive means of furthering the City's interest(s); and (2) Resolution 18-145 subjects First Lutheran to restrictions and conditions not imposed on nonreligious assemblies in the same zoning district. (Id. ¶¶ 71-92.) First Lutheran also alleges that Resolution 18-145 violates First Lutheran's First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, and free assembly. (Id. ¶¶ 109-141.)

         On May 11, 2018, a City inspector came to Listening House for an inspection. (M. Peterson Decl. ¶ 14.) The inspector said that she or other inspectors would be continuing to ensure “compliance with the zoning conditions.” (C. Peterson Decl. ¶ 16.) The inspector also told Listening House's Executive Director that Listening House violated the twenty-person limit every day that the inspector was there. (Id.)

         First Lutheran moves for a preliminary injunction, asking the Court to enjoin enforcement of ...

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