Appeals Court Cites Free Exercise Clinic Brief
Earlier this year, the Yale Law School Free Exercise Clinic co-authored an amici curiae brief in support of a historically Black Pentecostal community — Victory Temple — seeking the right to build a new facility on its land to accommodate its growing congregation. On November 3, 2021 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled for Victory Temple in Redeemed Christian Church of God (Victory Temple) v. Prince George’s County, citing to the clinic’s brief on behalf of the Sikh Coalition and General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Victory Temple is a congregation affiliated with the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination founded in Nigeria in 1952. Since the opening of its church in 2002, Victory Temple has grown from about 500 to 2,000 members, and so sought to expand its church property. However, Prince George’s County withheld its zoning approval to build, centrally raising concerns that the larger building would attract increased traffic.
Victory Temple brought suit in federal court under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA protects religious assemblies from government-imposed burdens on religious use of land where the burden is not necessary to protect a compelling government interest. But Prince George’s County (Maryland) argued that the regulation invoked to deny the building — a water and sewer plan amendment — should be excluded from RLUIPA’s protections because Maryland law does not categorize such amendments as “zoning” laws. After Victory Temple prevailed in the trial court, the County appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
With Sidley Austin LLP as co-counsel, the clinic wrote in support of Victory Temple on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil-rights organization, and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the national administrative body for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Christian denomination with over 22 million members worldwide. The brief explained that RLUIPA’s text and history alike — including its central concern with states burdening disfavored faith communities — show that state and local officials cannot define ordinary land use protections out of RLUIPA’s protections, or avoid RLUIPA claims with generalized concerns untethered to the specific facts of a project.
The Fourth Circuit agreed on both points and affirmed the decision for Victory Temple. It found in the first instance that limiting RLUIPA to state-law definitions would be irrational, noting “the Amici supporting Victory Temple have correctly emphasized, [that] a State could, after all, define the applicable and key RLUIPA terms narrowly, thus limiting RLUIPA’s application.” The court extended its “appreciation” for the clinic’s brief and their clients’ “valuable perspective on the issues presented here.”
Joseph Simmons ’22, Eshan Dabak ’23, and Ezra Husney ’21 were the student team from the clinic who prepared the brief.
“Helping to write the Sikh Coalition and General Conference amicus brief in Victory Temple was both an honor and a valuable learning experience,” said Simmons. “For the Fourth Circuit to appreciatively cite our brief’s analysis of RLUIPA was an unexpected bonus.”
The firm of Gallagher, Evelius & Jones represented Victory Temple and successfully prosecuted the claim below in the first ever multiday remote trial conducted by the District of Maryland.
“We are grateful for the clinic’s support on behalf of the Sikh Coalition and General Conference, particularly their broader perspective on RLUIPA’s robust protection for minority faith communities like our client,” said Meghan K. Casey, a partner at Gallagher.
Clinic students were under the supervision of attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP, led by partners Gordon Todd and Erika Maley, as well as their Yale Law School faculty team, led by Clinical Lecturer in Law Chris Pagliarella ’16.
Pagliarella noted that the outcome in Victory Temple built on the clinic’s prior success, when it filed the sole amicus brief at the Supreme Court supporting a petition by Amish plaintiffs whose simple religious way of life was threatened by a water-use regulation. The Supreme Court vacated that decision in July and directed further review, with separate statements from Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. ’75 and Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch echoing the clinic’s brief on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.
In addition to briefing work, new clinic students participated in a doctrinal seminar team-taught by Professor Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law, who founded the clinic; Visiting Professor Michael Helfand ’07; and Pagliarella. Returning clinic students participated in an inter-law school workshop on important Free Exercise scholarship with students from Harvard, Stanford, and Texas law school religious liberty clinics. Yale Law School was represented among the workshop speakers by Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law Reva Siegel and Anne Urowsky Professor of Law Douglas NeJaime.
The Free Exercise Clinic at Yale Law School provides an opportunity for students to defend the free exercise of politically vulnerable religious minorities.