Fair Housing Act Meets RLUIPA in Georgia
Late last month, an addiction ministry known as Vision Warriors Church, Inc. sued the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners under the Fair Housing Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, RLUIPA, and the U.S. Constitution. According to the complaint, the Church provides “a faith-based community for men recovering from addiction that focuses on accountability and transparency in an effort to help men to be better Disciples of Christ, fathers, husbands, leaders and friends.” It does so by offering support services for 20-30 men to overcome addiction through a residential program, weekly services and faith-based meetings. In 2017, the Church purchased property located at 1709 Old Country Place, Woodstock, Georgia from another ministry called Happy Acres Mission Transit Center. Happy Acres operated there for approximately 35 years and, with local zoning approval, provided temporary housing to missionaries, had a worship/assembly hall, dormitories with kitchen facilities, an auto repair shop, and storage building. The Church alleges that it purchased the property following assurances from the Zoning Administrator that its use would be permitted. After operating for approximately 4 months, the Church claims that the County prevented it from operating in response to neighborhood opposition in an attempt to close the Church’s doors.
The Church asserts that Cherokee County amended its zoning ordinance to limit operation of a dormitory by special permit. The County notified the Church in June 2018 that the Church was “engaging in an unpermitted use of the property such that the earlier zoning permit it received as issued in error.” The County ordered the Church that “offending uses must be discontinued,” and the Zoning Administrator revoked the Church’s earlier zoning approval. The Church appealed the revocation and submitted applications for two zoning applications (special permit and zoning map amendment). The appeal was stayed pending resolution of the 2 applications, both of which were denied.
The Church sued alleging violations of the FHA, ADA, RLUIPA, and the U.S. Constitution. In support of its FHA and ADA claims, Vision Warriors alleges that its “use of the property is practically identical to that of Happy Acres, which was approved by the county year after year. The only difference is the type of residents served by Vision Warriors – i.e. disabled individuals struggling to overcome addiction.” The Church claims that the County has deprived it of its right to the free exercise of religion, as secured by RLUIPA, placing a substantial burden on its religious exercise, and that the County violated the Equal Protection Clause under the 14thAmendment.
Local coverage, including a link to the federal complaint, is available here.