Afresh Church v. City of Winchester, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109975, 2019 WL 2746757 (W.D. Va. July 1, 2019)
Afresh Church (“Afresh”) has a leasehold interest in a building (the “Building”) owned by Farmont Avenue Holdings, LLC (the “Owner”) and located in an area designated as a “limited industrial district.” The City of Winchester (the “City”) has cited the Owner several times for allowing church services to be held in the Building because the area is not zoned for churches. While church uses are not expressly prohibited by the ordinances, they are not included in the list of allowed businesses and activities. Afresh sought a declaratory judgment that the City’s zoning ordinance and its enforcement action against the Owner violates Afresh’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and to enjoin the City from pursuing any enforcement or other action against the Owner that would affect Afresh’s ability to continue to use the Building.
The Court denied the City’s Motion for Absention. When considering a motion for abstention under Younger v. Harris, a court must determine whether (1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding brought prior to substantial progress in the federal proceedings that (2) implicates important, substantial, or vital state interests, and (3) provides adequate opportunity to perform their judicial functions. With regards to the third factor, the court found that the Owner, not Afresh, was being cited for violation of the ordinance even though Afresh held the church services and, therefore, Afresh could not raise its RLUIPA claim in the zoning ordinance proceeding because it was not a party to the proceeding.
The Court also denied the City’s motion to dismiss because it was unclear whether the parties actually entered into a written lease before the complaint was filed or whether rental payments were made. The Court also denied the City’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim because Afresh alleged: (i) it had a reasonable expectation that it could use the Building for religious services since secular groups were allowed to gather and the City’s ordinance prohibiting such use substantially burdened Afresh; and (ii) the City’s zoning ordinance was not facially neutral and, as applied, discriminated against religious organizations. Finally, the Court denied Afresh’s motion for summary judgment because the parties had not yet engaged in discovery.