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Fourth Circuit rules against Virginia church in liquor license dispute

A three-judge panel said the church knew what it was getting into when it bought land in an agricultural district, where the other properties allowed to have large gatherings include wineries and breweries.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Fourth Circuit on Tuesday affirmed a district court's decision to toss a lawsuit brought by a northern Virginia church that argued it shouldn't have to get a liquor license to worship on its land. 

The zoning dispute began in 2020 when pastor Allen Perdue of Alive Church of the Nazarene in Bristow, Virginia, met with Prince Williams County's zoning administrator about allowing his congregation to worship on land purchased by the church until their building is constructed.

The land is located within an agricultural district. Landowners in the district may only use the land for things other than agriculture if they are awarded a special use permit.

To comply with the special use permit, the church would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to utilize low-impact development designs for its buildings, construct water retention areas, implement stormwater management strategies and build turn lanes on roads into the property if requested by the county.

Due to the church lacking funding to apply for a special use permit, the administrator suggested the church apply for a "bona fide agricultural use" permit in the interim. Other properties under that zoning, including farm wineries, breweries, and other agrotourism properties, are allowed to have large gatherings. 

The church applied for an Alcoholic Beverage Control license to produce apple cider and other non-alcoholic beverages but withdrew the request after consulting with its national organization.

"Due to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the Church of the Nazarene denomination against any use, sale, or promotion of alcohol, and in consultation with Church of the Nazarene officials, the Church withdrew its request for an ABC license," the church said in court filings.

The church sued the county for three alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and three constitutional claims. It argued that the county requiring it to obtain a liquor license and a special use permit to build on its land violated RLUIPA's equal terms, nondiscrimination and substantial burden provisions. The constitutional claims alleged those requirements contravene the First Amendment's free exercise and peaceable assembly clauses and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

The district court granted the county's motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, prompting the church's appeal to the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit, which heard arguments in October.

The three-judge panel affirmed the lower court Tuesday, noting the church could not point to a landowner who is being treated better than the church. The church cited breweries and wineries, but the court said a more appropriate comparator would be a civic club seeking to use agriculturally zoned land for large meetings. 

"A zoning ordinance that specifically excludes religious institutions from an area zoned for a particular purpose is not necessarily discriminatory," U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the unanimous panel. "So long as the included uses do not have the same effect on the regulatory purpose as the excluded religious uses."

According to the ruling, the church did not allege the county passed its agricultural zoning ordinance with discriminatory intent or enforced it in a discriminatory way.

The court also had no sympathy for the church's claim that it must expend significant resources to obtain a special use permit before meeting to worship, saying the burden is self-imposed as the church knew what it was getting into when it purchased the land. 

The church's constitutional free exercise and peaceable assembly claims also fail because the county did not ban its assembly and only asked for a special use permit first, King wrote.

"The requirement to get a SUP is narrowly tailored because it allows the county to achieve its goal of preserving farmland," the opinion states. "It has not been prevented from assembling at schools, licensed farm wineries and online."

King was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Toby Heytens, an appointee of President Joe Biden, and U.S. District Judge Sherri Lydon, a Donald Trump appointee sitting by designation from the District of South Carolina.

Attorneys from both sides did not respond to a request for comment.

Categories / Appeals, Law, Religion

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