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Legal challenge to city’s light restrictions in zoning code thrown out

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by a private, Catholic boys’ high school against a City, alleging that the City had violated the school’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) by prohibiting certain lights on the school’s sporting fields. See Marianist Province of the United States v. City of Kirkwood, No. 4:17-CV-805 RLW, (E.D. Mo. Sept. 7, 2018). In 2012, the City revised its zoning code to limit the height and light cast-off restrictions for all pole-mounted lighting fixtures on outdoor sports fields. In 2014, the school decided to renovate its sports fields and wanted to install pole lights that were in violation of the amended zoning code. The school applied for a variance, and the City mistakenly told the school that a variance was not required, believing that there were pre-existing non-conforming lights on the field. The school proceeded to install the lights and an accompanying sound system. After several complaints from neighbors about the lights and noise, the City informed the school that it was not permitted to use the lights. When the school again requested a variance, the City denied it. The school sued the City, alleging that the City’s prohibition on the school’s lights was a substantial burden on the school’s religious exercise. The Court rejected this claim, holding that the school failed to establish that the use of lights on its athletic field was a “religious exercise,” and that the school failed to establish any substantial burden because the school could still use its fields during daylight hours. The Court recognized that the City has a compelling interest in protecting the health and safety of the community, including through enforcing its zoning code. The Court also held that although the City Planner had stated that the school did not need a variance, the City would not be bound by that incorrect statement of the law because “estoppel” does not apply to acts of government, and a City is not bound by illegal or unauthorized acts of its officers.

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