Hires premier anti-RLUIPA advocate to argue for its unconstitutionality
I was sad, if not surprised, to read that the San Leandro City Council voted 5-2 (with Mayor Cassidy & Councilwoman Cutter in the minority) to appeal the 9th circuit Faith Fellowship decision to the US Supreme Court. That’s exactly what I predicted Meyers Nave, the City’s law firm, would push the City Council to do. I was tickled, however, to read that they’ve engaged Cardozo Law Professor Marci A. Hamilton to represent them on this appeal. Hamilton is not only the country’s most prominent critic of RLUIPA, and of government accommodation of religion in general, but she’s a woman with a mission: get the Supreme Court to declare RLUIPA unconstitutional. San Leandro may just help her accomplish that goal.
The Faith Fellowship case has so far involved rather technical matters: what is the proper standard for “substantial burden” under RLUIPA. Circuits courts have come to different conclusions as to what this entails, which allows the Supreme Court to take on the case. However, the US Supreme Court has so far denied all cert petitions on RLUIPA land issues, most recently in January. This is not surprising, finding a “substantial burden” test that would make the law both meaningful without being abusive in all circumstances is quite difficult, courts have gone back and forth on definitions as new situations arise. The Supreme Court may find it prudent to wait until the dust is a bit more settled at the circuit court level before it intervenes.
But I don’t believe that Professor Hamilton has any plans to appeal this case, other than nominally, on the proper definition of “substantial burden”. Hamilton, indeed, has repeatedly said that RLUIPA allows religious institutions to do anything they want. She’s suggested the statute be subtitled “A Bill to Permit Religious Landowners to Do Whatever They Want in Residential Neighborhoods and to Subsidize Lawyers for Religious Landowners with an Attorney’s Fee Provision”. A narrow “substantial burden” definition would not fit neatly with her description of RLUIPA as a “circus“.
Hamilton, I suspect, will use this opportunity to lounge a full front attack on the constitutionality of RLUIPA, most likely on federalist grounds (i.e. that the federal government doesn’t have the right to tell municipalities how to regulate land use). She’s well suited for the task. In 1997 she represented the City of Boerne in the landmark Supreme Court case that overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act vis a vis state and local governments. While Congress created RLUIPA mindful of the Boerne case, and every single circuit court that has looked at the constitutionality question has upheld it, Hamilton is hopeful that the more conservative members of the court will side with her. My guess is that if the Supreme Court does take this case it will do so to tackle the constitutional question. The fact that Hamilton will be the one arguing the case, may indeed make it more likely that they’ll take it. The odds are still quite slim, however.
If the Supreme Court does take the case, Hamilton won’t just be facing the able lawyers from the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). The US Justice Department will most likely intervene to defend the constitutionality of the law.
Even if the Supreme Court finds that the “strict scrutiny” provisions of RLUIPA are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court (or lower courts, if the Supreme Court remands the case) will still have to consider the question of whether the City of San Leandro violated Faith Fellowship’s constitutional rights to freedom expression and religious exercise and its constitutional and statutory right to equal protection of the laws. The latter claims come about because San Leandro allows “commercial entertainment” uses in the industrial area but not “assembly” uses. The 9th circuit didn’t address this issue, but left it open for future litigation.
Personally, I continue to believe that appealing this case to the Supreme Court is a costly mistake. If the Supreme Court takes the case, it’s very unlikely that it will rule for the city on all grounds without remanding any to a lower court. If it does remand the case, that would mean further litigation and much more money spent on attorneys’ fees. We are a poor city that has had to cut libraries, recreational activities and most social services – we can’t afford to be handing money to lawyers for no good reason.
The prudent thing for San Leandro to do is to work to settle this case, preferably in the next 6 months before the Supreme Court either rejects it or takes it on.
I e-mailed Prof. Hamilton and asked her why she took the case. Here is her answer:
“I took this case, because it meets the typical criteria that interest the Supreme Court: the relevant issues have been percolating for a significant period of time, the courts are split on the proper interpretation of the key terms, and the issues were directly addressed by the appellate court. It is time for the Court to take up one or more RLUIPA land use issues.
Marci Hamilton on the Daily Show
Marci A. Hamilton on Flaws of Religious Land Use Law