(CN) - A Mississippi town's ordinance banning churches in its historic downtown business district violates the First Amendment, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Opulent Life Church is a Christian church with 18 members in Holly Springs, Mississippi that seeks to expand its membership, but needs a larger facility to do so.
In August 2011, the church leased a property in the town's central courthouse square. However, the city refused to grant Opulent Life a permit because a zoning ordinance expressly singled out "churches" in that area, requiring them to obtain approval from the mayor, the Board of Alderman and 60 percent of nearby property owners.
Four months later, the church sued the city, claiming the zoning ordinance infringed on its right to worship freely, and asked for a preliminary injunction.
The district court denied Opulent Life's request for an injunction, but Holly Springs amended the ordinance the night before the hearing, replacing the imposition of special requirements on "churches" with a ban on "[c]hurches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other religious facilities."
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the city's quick amendment of the ordinance did not render Opulent Life's case moot.
"As Holly Springs conceded at oral argument, the now-repealed sections plainly violated the Equal Terms Clause. Those provisions imposed onerous burdens on churches not imposed on any other type of assembly or institution, similarly situated or not. ... This differential treatment of churches cannot be justified by any regulatory purpose or zoning criterion set forth in the ordinance," Judge Jennifer Elrod said, writing for the three-judge panel.
The court also directly addressed the city's amended ordinance, and found it cannot be justified by the city's stated purpose: "The amended ordinance includes a description of the purpose of the Business Courthouse Square District: 'to designate the area ... for certain retail, office and service uses which will complement the historic nature and traditional functions of the court square area as the heart of community life.' Insofar as this language can be read as purporting to create a commercial district, that justification fails because other noncommercial, non tax-generating uses are permitted in the district. For instance, the ordinance permits libraries, museums, art galleries, exhibitions, and 'similar facilit[ies]' on the courthouse square," Elrod said.
In addition, the court found that Opulent Life showed it would suffer immediate harm if it could not occupy its leased property. "The district court's reasoning would not support an irreparable harm finding until Opulent Life's membership exceeds its building's capacity, but Opulent Life insists that it cannot grow without a larger building, and supports this assertion with record evidence. In sum, our review of the record leaves us with a firm conviction that the district court erred in finding that Opulent Life's members are not 'currently being deprived of the right to freely exercise their religion,'" Elrod concluded.
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