SALEM, Ore. The city of West Linn's denial of a church's plan to build a meeting place in a residential zone is consistent with federal land-use laws, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The opinion reversed the state Land Use Board of Appeals.
The appeals board had decided that the city's rejection of the proposal by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hampered the church's constitutional rights to religious freedom, in violation of a federal law passed in 2000.
Portland lawyer Frank Hunsaker, who represents the church, said the ruling apparently was the first by an Oregon appellate court involving the new federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
Hunsaker said he hadn't yet talked with his client and had no immediate comment on whether the decision might be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
RLUIPA forbids local government land use restrictions from putting "substantial burdens" on religious freedom unless it's shown that the burden furthers "a compelling government interest."
Residents of Salem's West Linn neighborhood protested the Mormon church's proposal to build a meetinghouse and a 179-space parking lot on a 3.8 -acre parcel surrounded by single-family homes.
The church said the facility would ease crowding in a nearby Mormon chapel.
West Linn allows churches in residential zones under certain conditions, but the city rejected the Mormon church. City officials said the proposed size was too big for a residential zone, that the building wasn't compatible with the area and that proposed buffering wouldn't adequately screen the building and parking lot from nearby homes.
The City Council had claimed that maintaining the quality of residential neighborhoods was "a compelling government interest."
The three-judge Court of Appeals panel said that under the federal law it was up to churches to demonstrate that government has put a major burden on their religious liberty and that the LDS church had not done so.
The court said the land-use board wrongly concluded that the city's action prevented the church from building its meetinghouse.
If the church couldn't find a bigger parcel of land, the court said, it had no reason to believe the city wouldn't approve a smaller or differently shaped building and parking lot.
A Salem church, citing the same federal law, is suing the city in U.S. District Court in Eugene after being refused a zoning exception to allow the church to expand in a historic area where codes don't allow religious institutions.