[The following is a press release of the Alliance Defense Fund.]
RICHMOND, N.H. — Friday, June 25, 2010 — An Alliance Defense Fund allied attorney has secured a $1.15 million settlement on behalf of Saint Benedict Center of Richmond in a lawsuit over the town’s unconstitutional zoning restrictions. The center contended officials singled it out for discrimination after certain officials expressed their view that the church’s moral positions on matters such as abortion and homosexual behavior are “abhorrent.”
The settlement payment–coming after two state court orders in favor of the church–marks one of the largest settlements in U.S. history involving the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects churches from unequal treatment in land use disputes with local governments.
“Churches shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination and penalized by a city’s zoning restrictions because of their religious viewpoint,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Doug Napier. “It was right that Saint Benedict Center was compensated for years of unconstitutional restrictions that made it impossible to finish the construction of its church and school building.”
In enacting RLUIPA, Congress stated, “The right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the free exercise of religion. Churches and synagogues cannot function without physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements. The right to build, buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes.”
In June 2007, Saint Benedict Center–a small, traditional Catholic congregation that has operated a monastery, convent, house of worship, and religious school in Richmond since 1989–filed suit against the town of Richmond after the town imposed more than 30 conditions upon SBC’s proposed new church and school building. A court determined in a summary judgment order last October that the conditions made completion of construction impossible and constituted a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise under RLUIPA. The church noted to the court that the planning board chairman, who drafted several of the conditions, e-mailed other town officials [internal link] about his disgust for the church’s religious teachings, stating that its stance on abortion, homosexual behavior, pornography, and divorce were “abhorrent.”
After the court issued an order that deferred a ruling on the problematic construction conditions, the town agreed to pay the church $1.15 million in monetary damages and attorneys’ fees, and the town’s board of selectmen agreed to a separate settlement that makes completion of the church and school building possible.
“Disagreement with an organization’s religious or political views should never motivate the government to impose special restrictions upon a church’s building project,” said lead counsel Michael Tierney of Manchester, one of nearly 1,700 attorneys in the ADF alliance. Tierney, who practices with the law firm Wadleigh, Starr and Peters, PLLC, filed and settled Saint Benedict Center v. Town of Richmond in the New Hampshire Superior Court for Cheshire County.