Church takes Medina to court

By Susan Van Cleaf
Sun Contributing Editor

The U.S. District Court in Minnesota has issued a preliminary ruling on civil complaints filed by Woodridge Church against the city of Medina. Attorneys for both sides say they are pleased with the ruling.

Chief Judge Michael J. Davis ruled June 25 on eight complaints against the city relating to Woodridge’s plans to expand – plans that came to a halt in 2009. The complaints range from violation of first amendment freedom of religion rights to the church being injured by Medina’s 2009 temporary moratorium against building new churches and expanding churches.

Woodridge Church sits east of Medina City Hall on County Road 24 in what was originally a Rural Residential zoning district. Since June of 2009, both the church and city hall have been located in a new Rural Public/Semi-Public zoning district. The new district limits the size of churches and public institutions in non-sewer residential areas. The zoning change took place while Woodridge was applying for a conditional use permit (CUP) to expand in a Rural Residential area.

In spring 2008, Woodridge and city officials discussed expanding the church from its existing 28,000 square feet to 47,000 square feet. The multi-phase expansion would happen on two stories and would include a larger sanctuary. After working with city officials, architects and builders, the church reduced plans for first phase expansion to 42,000 square feet. But the new zoning capped the size of churches and public institutions at 40,000 square feet.

The Medina City Council learned that Woodridge was getting ready to apply for a CUP and on Jan. 20, 2009 and asked City Attorney Ron Batty to report back on Medina’s regulations relating to churches.

The South Crow River News reported on the meeting:

" ‘We need a moratorium,’ said City Councilor Carolyn Smith. ‘We don’t have time to do this (look at regulations for churches). This will not be settled soon.’

"Mayor (Tom) Crosby said Medina needed to look at how to deal with the changing nature of churches. They used to be neighborhood based. Services were limited to Sundays and religious holidays.

"Now churches are outgrowing facilities and expanding or moving, he said. There’s less of a local connection, and that churches are offering Wednesday services and other activities, like nursery schools and Alcoholics Anonymous on other days of the week. The more intense uses merit a closer look as to whether they should be in residential areas.

"Mayor Crosby noted that large churches are looking at locating in non-sewer areas, thus running the risk of failed septic systems and no place to relocate them. He said availability of sewer for large churches should be considered in an ordinance.

"Looking at Medina’s land use regulations for churches might actually expand the zoning areas in which large churches can locate, Mayor Crosby said. For example, business parks might make good locations."

The South Crow River News described the February meeting at which City Attorney Batty offered a draft of a moratorium ordinance:

"Rev. Paul Johnson, senior pastor at Woodridge Church, asked the City Council to consider his church’s proposal first and then act on the moratorium after that. ‘The nature of our project doesn’t expand the church to the degree that it would create problems,’ he said.

"Architect Nicole Thompson said the church wants to add classroom and office space. She showed how the proposed addition would fit into the footprint of the existing church, which is U shaped.

"She added that a moratorium would harm the church by delaying construction and occupancy and hindering its fund raising efforts.

"Church president Robert Bjork said Woodridge has been raising funds, planning the project and working with an architect for some time. The church would have appreciated some communication from the city about its plans for changing regulations for churches."

In February 2009, Medina placed a one-year moratorium on construction of new churches in the city and the expansion of existing ones. Woodridge’s CUP application was the only church construction application pending before the city, according to the District Court decision. The city lifted the moratorium in June, when it established the new Rural Public/ Semi-public zoning district.

Medina’s Planning Commission was scheduled to consider Woodridge’s CUP application and interim use permit Aug. 11, 2009. Woodridge withdrew its application the day before, according to the District Court decision.

The church took the city to court early this year. In its complaint, attorneys for Woodridge listed eight counts of alleged violations of the church’s rights by the city. They included violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the free exercise (of religion) clause of the First Amendment, the equal protection clause of the First Amendment, the free speech clause of the First Amendment, the right to peaceable assembly of the First Amendment, due process clause of the First Amendment and the Right of Conscience in Article 1 of the Minnesota Constitution.

In his preliminary ruling, Judge Davis said it was too soon for his court to rule on some complaints because Medina has not made a decision about issuing a variance for the church expansion project. Once the city makes a decision, the court might have jurisdiction, depending upon what the decision is. However, Judge Davis’ court does have jurisdiction over complaints that the church was injured by the temporary moratorium.

Now that the U.S. District Court has ruled, the next step is an Aug. 7 status conference before a magistrate judge, said George Hoff, League of Minnesota Cities attorney representing Medina. The meeting will result in a road map as to what will happen next.

He said he was pleased with the District Court’s ruling because it granted Medina "the relief it needs." He explained that each complaint has two parts, the face of each constitutional right and the manner in which it was applied. Medina asked the court for relief from complaints about the manner in which the constitutional policies were applied, and the court did.

Hoff said he was also was pleased with the court’s ruling against "intrusive discovery" in which Woodridge attorneys would have sought depositions from city council members as to how they would have voted on a variance application.

Joel Oster, of the Alliance Defense Fund, lead counsel for Woodridge, also was pleased with the District Court’s ruling. He saw opportunities for the church to seek relief from the court if Medina’s future decisions about the church’s expansion plans violate the church’s constitutional rights "as applied." He also said he was pleased that the court was willing to allow the church to proceed with claims that it was injured by the moratorium.

Oster said the U.S. Constitution protects churches from land use decisions that interfere with their right to assemble and to practice their faith. "Churches practice their faith on land," he said.

His organization, the Alliance Defending Freedom, does pro bono work involving churches and First Amendment freedoms. "We never charge a dime," Oster said. He likened his organization to the American Civil Liberties Union.