MERIDEN — With little discussion during a meeting held by videoconference, the City Council swiftly and unanimously approved amending the city’s zoning ordinance to establish places of worship as a permitted use by right in city districts zoned for commercial and industrial use.
The previous language in Meriden’s zoning ordinance had listed places of worship and other religious facilities as permitted uses "subject to issuance of a special permit" within those districts.
The amendment’s passage comes several months after Meriden officials co-signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in which local officials agreed to revise the city’s zoning ordinance, which had treated “religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions” in multiple zoning districts, according to the agreement’s language.
That unequal treatment violated the federal Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, the agreement further stated.
The DOJ’s complaint against the city was filed on the heels of a separate federal complaint filed in 2019 by Omar Islamic Center, a Middletown-based mosque, whose application to move into a vacant building on Research parkway was denied by the city’s Planning Commission.
Federal court records show Omar Islamic Center’s complaint remains unsettled.
The DOJ complaint, which listed the city and its planning commission as co-defendants, alleged both parties violated Omar Islamic’s rights under RLUIPA by “imposing an unjustified substantial burden on the Center’s exercise of religion by denying the Center’s request for a special exception permit ... requiring religious assemblies, but not comparable nonreligious assemblies and institutions, to obtain discretionary special exception permits in order to operate in the M-4 zoning district, in violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms provision…,” according to the complaint, which was filed publicly on Nov. 5, 2020.
The subsequent consent decree enjoins the city from “imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a manner that, within the meaning of RLUIPA, imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of any person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the Defendants can demonstrate that imposition of that burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest…”
During Monday night’s meeting, Paul Dickson, the city planning director, briefly explained the amendment, without directly referencing RLUIPA or the consent decree.
“The regulation as proposed as plainly written is to take religious places of assembly from special exemption uses, which they were primarily before in the commercial and industrial zones, and to make them permitted uses of right,” Dickson said. “This was done as part of a review with the law department and outside counsel.”
Dickson further explained that use by right needs to be “equal across the boards” in areas where such use is permitted for non-religious entities with a similar congregation of people, whether commercial or non-profit.
City Councilor Michael Rohde, reached a day after the meeting, acknowledged the federal consent decree, which he said, “spelled out a number of actions the city had to take.”
Aside from amending the city’s zoning ordinance, other actions include permitting Omar Islamic to operate at 999 Research Parkway and training “relevant” city personnel on RLUIPA compliance.