SCOTUS allows Christian school's banishment

Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Michael F. Haverluck (

Supreme Court justices 2017Less than a year after a Michigan township effectively banished a Christian school by changing its zoning laws to keep it from moving into the community, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the school’s plea to hear its case.

First Liberty General Counsel Hiram Sasser – whose nonprofit law firm has represented Livingston Christian Schools (LCS) in its lawsuit against Genoa Charter Township – was surprised that the nation’s highest court is fine with city officials discriminating against the school, based on its religious beliefs.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision – not only because of what it means for our clients, but because it will embolden other cities and towns across the country to keep religious organizations from contributing to their community,” Sasser lamented, according to WND. “We are extremely disappointed the Supreme Court will allow this terrible precedent to stand.”

Courts no longer backing religious liberty?

LCS needed at least four SCOTUS judges to agree to hear the case, but even with President Donald Trump’s addition to the bench, it did not have enough support in the nation’s capital.

The problematic decision rendered by the federal court of appeals last June was challenged on its merits and viewed as a blatant form of discrimination against faith-based groups.

“The decision came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it isn’t a burden on religious exercise for a ‘city to use its zoning laws to prevent a religious school, church, synagogue or mosque from moving into town,’” WND’s Bob Unruh reported. “At the time of the 6th Circuit ruling in 2017, Sasser warned that letting the decision stand would endanger churches and religious institutions.”

It was stressed that a specific federal law was passed back in 2000 to make sure that local governments do not discriminate against religious groups and individuals in property matters on the basis of their religious beliefs.

“The school's suit alleged the township violated its rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA),” CBN News pointed out. “According to the First Liberty Institute, Congress enacted RLUIPA to prevent cities from using zoning rules to push religious organizations out of their city.”

No Christian teaching here …

Back in 2015, LCS was ready to move into a new facility that fit its budget and better met its ministerial needs – not foreseeing any challenges.

“When LCS’s previous facility [in Pinckney] no longer could support the school, it found a new home in Brighton Church of the Nazarene, centrally located in Genoa Township, Michigan,” First Liberty informs on its website. “However, Genoa Township refused to approve a permit to allow LCS to operate its school at Brighton Church – effectively precluding the school from existing anywhere in the town.”

In fact, more than a hundred students were ready and set to make the move after school officials all but solidified the deal, but city officials took action at the last minute to block the move.

“School administrators had made plans to move the student body consisting of 140 students from their existing facility to The Naz,” CBN News’ Steve Warren reported. “The school had signed a lease with the church before the permit was rejected.”

This was in spite of much of the community’s support.

“The local planning commission approved the plan, the community supported it and even experts summoned by the township were in favor,” Unruh noted.

City officials were reportedly well aware that their objection would threaten the school’s very existence.

“[The Genoa Township] threatened the survival of the school as a religious institution because – as the record demonstrates – the school has no viable alternative location,” First Liberty noted at the time, according to WND.

Harsh opposition to the move was waged by local officials so that the school was essentially banished from moving throughout the entire town – even though city officials insisted that the reasoning for its opposition was based on “traffic safety issues.”

“[The city refused to let LCS move to the church] or, for that matter, anywhere else in town [despite the fact that] federal law expressly prohibits the government using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town,” Sasser pointed out.

And when the Christian school discovered a last resort – that, too, was quashed by city officials.

“They found only one viable option – LCS entered into an agreement with Brighton Church of the Nazarene to lease one of its buildings to house the school,” First Liberty’s legal team recounted, according to WND. “[But this alternative was soon shot down, as the township board refused to let LCS relocate] anywhere within Genoa Township.”

Goodbye, religious freedom …

After the federal appellate court decision last summer, Sasser emphasized the serious threat to religious liberty such rulings can have on the entire nation.

“This precedent is very dangerous – it states that it is not a burden on religious exercise for a city to ban religious schools, churches, synagogues or mosques from moving into town,” Sasser argued at the time, according to a report by the Livingston Daily in June 2017. “In fact, if a city wanted to ban a specific synagogue or mosque from moving into its city limits, the court held such a ban would not be a substantial burden on religious exercise. This is shocking and cannot be allowed to stand.”

It is feared that the school may have to close its doors for good because the court allowed the township to get away with its intentionally discriminatory zoning.

“Principal Ted Nast said the school already had lost students because of the town’s opposition, and its survival was in doubt,” Unruh informed.

Despite Sasser’s disappointment over the federal appeals court decision and SCOTUS’s refusal to hear the case, he is confident that LCS, First Liberty and the other legal team representing the school in the case were – and still are – on the right side of the law.

"Federal law expressly prohibits the government from using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town,” Sasser expressed in a statement, according to CBN News. “We are, however, grateful to Rob Kelner and the entire team at Covington & Burling, LLP, for their diligent efforts in seeking to protect religious freedom in this case."

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