Published December 9th, 2019 at 1:47 PM
Mission Woods and Lenexa are both cities within Johnson County, but that’s about where the similarities end.
The former is a hamlet tucked up against State Line Road near the Country Club Plaza, and the latter is a growing suburb that sprawls westward toward Lawrence.
Yet a federal lawsuit against Lenexa has united the two municipalities in one of the most unlikely of manners: a local zoning matter that has morphed into a constitutional issue over freedom of religion.
Mission Woods came out on the losing end of a court battle that wrapped up only months ago, and Lenexa is in the early stages of its legal dispute. Both cases involve the wishes of a local church, and both have ended up before U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree.
The heart of the cases involve a 2000 federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The law prohibits any government from enacting a land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of a person or institution unless the regulation furthers a “compelling government interest” in the least restrictive way possible.
Crabtree heard arguments in the Lenexa case last week, as Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, at 9400 Pflumm Road, seeks a temporary restraining order against the city’s rejection of its proposal to operate an overnight shelter at its building this winter. A decision on that matter could come any day now.
In the Mission Woods case, involving St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church, at 5035 Rainbow Blvd., a jury said the city violated RLUIPA in rejecting the church’s plan to renovate a neighboring home for additional meeting space.
Shawnee Mission Unitarian did mention the St. Rose case in petitioning the court, but it remains to be seen if the decision has any bearing on the Lenexa case. St. Rose did not come up in the Thursday hearing before Crabtree.
The genesis of the St. Rose case dates back to 2011, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas bought a run-down building from Westwood Lutheran Church. The diocese spent two years and about $1.6 million renovating the church. It spent additional funds to renovate the rectory.
St. Rose thrived upon opening in January 2013, regularly drawing as many as 800 people weekly at its three Sunday masses. When it needed more space, the church in 2015 purchased a home at 2216 W. 51st St. immediately adjacent to its property to serve as a meeting house.
But St. Rose hit a snag when it presented its renovation plans to the city in February 2016. Nearby residents expressed concerns about noise, traffic and parking problems that could result from the expansion.
What resulted was a 10-month back-and-forth between the city and the church until the City Council ultimately rejected the church’s plans.
The archdiocese filed the RLUIPA suit in March 2017. Part of its argument centered on an “equal terms” claim in which the archdiocese contended the city was treating it differently than when it approved uses for secular applicants: athletic fields for Pembroke Hill School and a parking lot for the University of Kansas’ Westwood Medical Pavilion.
The jury issued its decision a year ago, ruling in favor of the church on the equal terms argument, but rejecting several other claims based upon RLUIPA, the First Amendment and Kansas law. The jury awarded $10,000 in damages and ordered the city to pay the church’s legal bill of about $300,000.
Mission Woods Mayor Robert Tietze said the city is curious about why work has not started in the year since the verdict. But archdiocese chancellor, the Rev. John Riley, said the church could not move forward until the court issued a final judgement this spring.
The church has rebid the project and must get sign off from the city. Riley does not know when the project will be complete, but he said it can’t come quick enough because the need at St. Rose has only grown in the past couple years.
“We have been needing and wanting that space for a long time,” he said. “We are motivated to get moving as quickly as possible.”
Tietze understands the church’s urgency to serve its growing congregation, and said the city harbors no ill will toward the church. Both sides had firmly held beliefs.
“We presented our case, they presented their case, and it ended up the way it did,” he said. Sitting through the jury trial was actually very educational, Tietze added.
Insurance covered the judgement against the city, but their insurer dropped them when it came time to renew. With that blemish on its record, Tietze said, it’s new coverage has come with significantly higher premiums.
In Lenexa, the city and Shawnee Mission Unitarian got sideways this fall as the church rushed to open a cold-weather homeless shelter by the first of December. Church officials and homeless advocates felt that initial conversations with the city had gone well, so they were taken aback by the city’s rejection of the plan in late October.
Lenexa Assistant City Attorney David Jack told Crabtree that the city was equally surprised when the church sued them over the homeless shelter impasse shortly before Thanksgiving. The church as hired Daniel Dalton, a Detroit attorney who specializes in RLUIPA cases.
City officials were anticipating continued discussions with the church to find an alternative location that would be better suited for an overnight shelter. The city has concluded that the shelter is akin to a hotel, and therefore incompatible in the single-family residential zone in which the church is located.
“Simply because it is a church does not mean it can do whatever it wants,” Jack told Crabtree.
The long-term nature of the proposed use, essentially housing people nightly for four months, is a main concern, Jack said, and it’s what makes a homeless shelter different from something like an all-night party the church might want to host or if it wanted to temporarily shelter residents displaced by a disaster.
Yet, Dalton argued, the city’s rejection of the overnight shelter clearly violated RLUIPA. “Sheltering the homeless is a ministry of the church,” he said.
One of the main questions before Crabtree is also is whether the church followed the proper procedure in contesting the city’s October rejection.
The city contends the church had to appeal to the city’s board of zoning appeals before seeking relief through the federal courts. The church countered that it had no choice but to seek court intervention because Lenexa’s zoning regulations make no provision for a homeless shelter, so it had no basis for a zoning appeal.
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at email@example.com or 816.398.4205.