Christian School Can Be Banned From Michigan Township, Judges Rule

An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo.
An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A panel of a U.S. Court of Appeals said Friday that a Michigan Township can forbid a Christian school from moving into its city. First Liberty Institute, which is representing Livingston Christian School, called it a "very dangerous" precedent.

"This precedent is very dangerous. It states that it is not a burden on religious exercise for a city to ban religious schools, churches, synagogues or mosques from moving into town," Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel of First Liberty, said in a statement after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected the Christian school's appeal.

LCS first brought a lawsuit in a federal court in Michigan to protect its right to exist as a ministry in Genoa Township. They sued the Township under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, for not allowing them to use a portion of the Brighton Church of the Nazarene, known as The Naz. The school wanted to move students from the former St. Mary School building in neighboring Pinckney to The Naz.

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Despite the recommendations of the town's planning commission and consultants who approved the school's application, Genoa Township in July 2015 refused to give LCS a permit to operate its school at Brighton Church, effectively precluding the school from existing anywhere in the town.

The school argued in its lawsuit that the township's actions substantially burdened the school's ability to operate as a religious ministry. After arguments at the appeals court in April, the three judges of the Sixth Circuit concluded that the township's ban did not present a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion of Livingston Christian School.

Sasser added in the statement: "If a city wanted to ban a specific synagogue or mosque from moving into its city limits, the court held such a ban would not be a substantial burden on religious exercise. This is shocking and cannot be allowed to stand. Towns who use their zoning laws to keep religious schools and organizations out of their backyard violate federal law and the First Amendment."

"The government is refusing to allow a Christian school to move into a building on church property or, for that matter, anywhere else in town. That's wrong," Sasser said earlier, explaining the basis for the lawsuit. "Federal law expressly prohibits the government using zoning laws to keep religious institutions out of their town. … This case will determine whether cities across America can ban Christian schools from their city limits. We hope the court will protect the rights of religious institutions to exist in American cities."

Livingston Daily earlier reported that "reasons township officials denied the school use of the church centered on concerns over increased traffic on busy Brighton Road, which is just down the road from Brighton High School, as well as past issues with the The Naz not following township approved plans related to an expansion and renovation of the church."

However, senior council for for First Liberty Institute Jeremy Dys argued at the time that those aren't adequate reasons for a government to keep a religious institution out. "A township cannot create zoning laws that keep a religious ministry out of their township without a compelling government interest, and they would have to prove that they acted in the least restrictive means."

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