City 12, Bishop 0

On January 4 a decision about the legality of the Our Lady Of Hope Historic District was handed down by U. S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield (Most Reverend Timothy McDonnell) had contested the creation of the district on many fronts. Ponsor considered two of the Bishop's complaints "not ripe" for adjudication. The other ten were dismissed.

[links to previous court papers are here]
[link to the full decision is here]
[link to our "plain english" count-by-count summary is here]

Outline of the Decision:
I. Introduction, p. 1
II. Facts
        A. The Parties, p. 3
        B. Closing the Our Lady Of Hope Church, p. 4
        C. The “Our Lady of Hope Historic District”, p. 8
III. Discussion, p. 12
        A. The Summary Judgment Standard, p. 13
        B. Ripeness, p. 14
                    1. Creation Of A Single-Parcel Historic District, p. 15
                                a. administrative burden
                                b. unfavorable treatment burden
                    2. Preventing Plaintiff From Deconsecrating Church, p. 17
        C. Claims Against Individual Defendants, p. 25
        D. RLUIPA, p. 25
                    1. substantial burden (Count 9), p. 25
                    2. equal terms (Count 8), p. 36
                    3. nondiscrimination ( Count 8), p. 43
                    4. unreasonable limitation (Count 10), p. 44          
        E. Remaining Federal Claims
                    1. free exercise (Count 1), p. 45
                    2. establishment (Count 1), p. 50
                    3. equal protection (Count 5), p. 53
                    4. due process (Count 7), p. 53
        F. State Claims
                    1. free exercise (Count 2), p. 54
                    2. equal protection (Count 6), p. 55
                    3. civil rights (Count 11), p. 55
                    4. declaratory judgment (Count 12), p. 55
IV. Conclusion, p. 55

our short summary of the memorandum is below:

January 4, 2011

This lawsuit places the court at the intersection of two important, protected rights: the right of a religious entity to manage its places of worship in accordance with church law without oversight by secular authorities, and the right of the larger community to have a role in the preservation of a beloved landmark that was once a church.

In this case, Plaintiff Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield challenges, as unenforceable, a local ordinance that might result in the imposition of architectural restrictions on Our Lady of Hope Church in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. Services terminated at Our Lady of Hope in January 2010, and the ordinance in question, Section 2.46.030(G) of the Revised Ordinances of the City of Springfield (“the Ordinance”), would require Plaintiff to submit to oversight by the Springfield Historical Commission before altering physical aspects of the church building, possibly including sacred religious iconography.

The complaint sets forth twelve counts alleging, inter alia, that the Ordinance violates provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), as well as Plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of religion under the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts, seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief that would invalidate the Ordinance. Defendants have filed a cross motion for summary judgment, asking the court to declare that Plaintiff is obliged to comply with the Ordinance by filing a timely application with the Springfield Historical Commission before attempting to alter or demolish any exterior architectural features of the church. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14) will be denied, and Defendants’ Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 22) will be allowed.

It is important to emphasize at the outset that a significant portion of the court’s rationale is anchored on the doctrine of ripeness. The sum and substance of this ruling is this: the Ordinance’s requirement that Plaintiff submit a plan for review violates neither statutory nor constitutional law. If a plan should be formulated and submitted pursuant to the Ordinance, the response of the Historical Commission may change the constitutional picture significantly and entitle Plaintiff to further judicial consideration....

[...50 pages later...]

. . . a mainstay of this analysis is the fact that the case arises in the absence of any submission pursuant to the Ordinance. If such a submission were made, the Historical Commission’s response might, or might not, alter the analysis in a future legal challenge.

What can be said with certainty now, however, is that no constitutional or statutory rights of Plaintiff [Bishop] have been or are being violated. It is, one hopes, not beyond possibility that wise and respectful discussions might lead to a resolution of the controversy around Our Lady of Hope Church that will be satisfactory to all concerned.

For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ Cross Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby ALLOWED in its entirety, and Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby DENIED in its entirety. The clerk will enter judgment for Defendants [City].

This case may now be closed.

[link to the full decision is here]