Sunday, June 21, 2009

TRFRA: Barr v. City of Sinton (Tex 2009)


Barr v. City of Sinton, (Tex. 2009)
No. 06-0074 (Tex. Jun. 19, 2009)(Hecht) (Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) enforced in local NIMBY dispute over halfway house for former prisoners run by pastor)
PASTOR RICK BARR AND PHILEMON HOMES, INC. v. CITY OF SINTON; from San Patricio County; 13th district (13-03-00727-CV, ___ SW3d ___, 11-23-05)motion to take judicial notice granted The Court reverses the court of appeals' judgment and remands the case to the trial court. Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the Court.


The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) provides that “a government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion [unless it] demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest [and] is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”1 TRFRA does not immunize religious conduct from government regulation; it requires the government to tread carefully and lightly when its actions substantially burden religious exercise. In this case, a city resident, as part of a religious ministry, offered men recently released from prison free housing and religious instruction in two homes he owned. In response, the city passed a zoning ordinance that not only precluded the use of the homes for that purpose but effectively banned the ministry from the city. The trial court found that the city had not violated TRFRA, and the court of appeals affirmed.2 We reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.
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None of the arguments made by the City or the court of appeals supports the assertion that zoning ordinances are exempt from TRFRA.
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Ordinance 1999-02 prohibited Barr from operating his halfway house ministry in the two homes he owned adjacent his supporting church, and the city manager testified that it was “a fair statement” that alternate locations were “probably . . . minimal” and “possibly” “pretty close to nonexistent”. The court of appeals stated that “there is nothing in the ordinance that precludes Barr from providing his religious ministry to parolees and probationers, from providing instruction, counsel, and helpful assistance in other facilities in Sinton, or from housing these persons outside the City and providing his religious ministry to them there.”75 But there is no evidence of any alternate location in the City of Sinton where the ordinance would have allowed Barr’s ministry to operate, or of possible locations outside the city. Moreover, while evidence of alternatives is certainly relevant to the issue whether zoning restrictions substantially burden free religious exercise, evidence of some possible alternative, irrespective of the difficulties presented, does not, standing alone, disprove substantial burden.76 In a related context, the Supreme Court has observed that “one is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place.”77 As a practical matter, the ordinance ended Barr’s ministry, as the City Council surely knew it would.78 We therefore have no hesitation in concluding that Ordinance 1999-02 substantially burdened Barr’s ministry. The trial court’s unexplained finding to the contrary has no support in the evidence.
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Although TRFRA places the burden of proving a substantial burden on the claimant, it places the burden of proving a compelling state interest on the government.
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The City’s failure to establish a compelling interest in this case in no way suggests that the government never has a compelling interest in zoning for religious use of property or in regulating halfway houses operated for religious purposes.112 TRFRA guarantees a process, not a result. The City’s principal position in this case has been that it is exempt from TRFRA. We do not hold that the City could not have satisfied TRFRA; we hold only that it failed to do so.
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Finally, TRFRA requires that even when the government acts in furtherance of a compelling interest, it must show that it used the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The City has made no effort to show that it complied with this requirement. Ordinance 1999-02 is very broad. If as the city manager testified, locations in the City of Sinton more than 1,000 feet from a residential area, school, park, recreational area, or church are “pretty close to nonexistent”, the ordinance effectively prohibits any private “residential facility . . . operated for the purpose of housing persons . . . convicted of misdemeanors . . . within one . . . year after having been released from confinement in any penal institution” inside the city limits. Read literally, this would prohibit a Sinton resident from leasing a room to someone within a year of his having been jailed for twice driving with an invalid license.113 Such restrictions are certainly not the least restrictive means of insuring that religiously operated halfway houses do not jeopardize children’s safety and residents’ wellbeing.
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We conclude, based on the record before us, that Ordinance 1999-02, as applied to Barr’s ministry, violates TRFRA. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals. Because the trial court did not reach the issues of appropriate injunctive relief, actual damages, and attorney fees, we remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

1 comment:

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