The Rocky Mountain Christian Church of Niwot, Colorado won a major victory [Monday] in federal appeals court in Denver. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held in a unanimous opinion that Boulder County violated the Church’s rights under federal civil rights law, rejecting the County’s appeal from a jury verdict in favor of the church.
The non-denominational evangelical Christian church wanted to expand its campus in exurban Niwot, five miles northeast of the city of Boulder. Boulder County refused to approve the permits to make the $30 million expansion, citing what it called the rural nature of the area. In 2006, the Church challenged that decision under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil rights law which protects churches from unfair, unreasonable and burdensome land use regulations.
In 2008, a federal jury found that Bounder County violated the Church’s rights under RLUIPA by treating it on less than equal terms with secular land users, imposing unreasonable limitations on churches in the county, and placing a substantial burden on its religious exercise. Today, the Tenth Circuit upheld that verdict, finding that the jury’s verdict was reasonable and upholding the district court’s order that the church should be permitted to build its expansion. The lower court has also approved more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs that the County will have to pay to the church.
“Boulder County is learning the hard way that churches have rights too. Federal civil rights law protects churches from unfair and arbitrary treatment by local governments, and there are real consequences for ignoring those laws” said Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Rocky Mountain Christian Church in the case.
Tom Macdonald of Otten, Johnson, Robinson, Neff & Ragonetti, LLP of Denver, and Kevin Baine and Curtis Mahoney of Williams & Connolly, a Washington, D.C. law firm also represented the Church, with Baine arguing the appeal. Boulder County fought the case vigorously, hiring Robinson & Cole, a Boston land use law firm, and Professor Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York City to defend its appeal.
Becket Fund attorneys are the nation’s leading experts on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its successor, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Both acts enforce constitutional principles derived from the First and Fourteenth Amendments and enjoy broad bipartisan support. In addition to conducting extensive litigation under the Act, they have written scholarly works concerning the Act and maintain a website dedicated to the Act, www.rluipa.org.