Great Lakes Soc. v. Georgetown Twp.

Decision Date30 October 2008
Docket NumberDocket No. 280577.,Docket No. 280574.,Docket No. 270031.
Citation281 Mich. App. 396,761 N.W.2d 371
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

McCroskey, Feldman, Cochrane & Brock, PLC, Muskegon (by John M. Karafa,) and Roman P. Storzer for the plaintiff.

Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, Grand Rapids (by William L. Henn and Craig R. Noland) for the defendants.

Bauckham, Sparks, Rolfe, Lohrstorfer & Thall, P.C., Kalamazoo (by John K. Lohrstorfer), for the Michigan Townships Association.



In Docket No. 270031, plaintiff Great Lakes Society (GLS) appeals by leave granted the trial court's opinion and order affirming the denial by defendant Georgetown Charter Township Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) of GLS's request for a special use permit and for a variance. In Docket Nos. 280574 and 280577, defendants appeal by leave granted the trial court's opinion and order granting GLS partial summary disposition on its claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc et seq., and the Michigan and United States constitutions.

We conclude that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard in deciding that the building GLS proposed to build was not a "church" under the township ordinance and that, under the correct analysis, it is a church. Nonetheless, we conclude that the ZBA properly decided not to grant a variance with respect to the proposed building location and that it did not violate the RLUIPA or any constitutional guarantees by making that decision. Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand this matter for entry of an order granting defendants summary disposition on GLS's statutory and constitutional claims. We do not retain jurisdiction.


GLS is a Michigan ecclesiastical corporation and an IRS-recognized religious organization exempt from taxation under 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3), and describes itself as ministering to persons having varying degrees of chemical sensitivities to common environmental pollutants. GLS seeks to construct a two-story building, approximately 9,700 square feet in size, for worship services and supporting ministries, on a six-acre parcel of property owned by GLS pastor John Cheetham (Cheetham property), located in defendant Georgetown Charter Township (the Township). The Cheetham property is zoned low-density residential (LDR). Section 8.3(A) of the Georgetown Charter Township zoning ordinances permits construction of "churches" in a residential district with a special use permit (SUP).

GLS filed its initial SUP application on April 17, 2002, and its second SUP application on February 18, 2003. According to those applications and additional information about the proposed building that GLS provided to the ZBA, the building would include (1) a 2,400-square-foot sanctuary, including a reception area, coatroom, bathrooms, kitchen, and special heating/cooling and air-filtration equipment, for a maximum of 60 people to participate in Sunday worship services;1 (2) a 1,600-square-foot counseling ministry area, including meeting rooms, a group conference room, a waiting lounge, and bathrooms; (3) a 1,500-square-foot tape/publication ministry area, including a recording studio, tape-copying equipment, publishing equipment, a mailing room, and a computer room; (4) an 1,800-square-foot ministerial training ministry area, including classrooms, a research library, a study area, an exercise room, a kitchen, and a bathroom; (5) a 1,200-square-foot administration area, including a ministerial office, a board of elders conference room, a bathroom, and a secretary/treasurer's office; (6) a 375-square-foot health ministry area; (7) a youth center, and (8) a large garage to house a GLS transport van, snow clearing/landscape equipment, space for a visiting minister's car, and recycling bins. The main floor was also to include airlock entrances and a mechanical/electrical/filter room.

GLS explained the purpose of the supporting ministries to the ZBA. According to GLS, its counseling ministry provides spiritual counseling to church members on an individual and group basis to facilitate their spiritual growth. John Cheetham and Timothy DeYoung, ordained ministers, are GLS's spiritual counselors. No fees are charged for counseling services.2 Rather, as with all of GLS's supporting ministries, donations are accepted; this is consistent with the religious belief that such giving is to be done voluntarily and "cheerfully."3 GLS's ministerial training ministry is necessary to achieve "perpetual existence of [GLS] as a religious organization" and is an integral part of continuing GLS's form of worship and mission. A youth center was included in the proposed building in anticipation of future growth in membership and as a means to strengthen youth connection to the group and to God. The youth center would also be used for weddings, funerals, Bible forums, and other religious or worship functions. GLS's tape/publication ministry "supports members' ability to worship through personal study of Christ's teachings" and is an effective means of "evangelistic outreach for new members."

GLS described its "health ministry," termed a food cooperative or nutritional service by the Township, as a "very minor portion of [the] entire ministry," arising out of GLS's mission, which includes "teach[ing] and practic[ing] the health and nutritional principles as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and ... provid[ing] for the members ... as Christ taught to provide." The health ministry provides GLS members with access to specialty food items and fragrance-free products. It also allows members to obtain "ordinary" items in a fragrance-free environment.4 Cheetham characterized the health ministry as "a spiritual service that is essential to the well-being of the members." Members cannot participate in the health ministry until they "establish a spiritual connection" by "show[ing] their commitment through interest ... in the spiritual teachings of [GLS]." Cheetham explained:

[GLS's] nutritional practice is an integrated and critical part of [its] worship in much the same way that Jews would follow Kosher standards. Chemically sensitive and allergenic people find that [the GLS] Health Ministry is essential to their spiritual and physical health as well as their ability to worship and hold supporting jobs for their personal survival.

Cheetham further explained that GLS members were not required to pay for items they obtained from this ministry, but were free to make a donation to GLS in appreciation for this service.5 Cheetham acknowledged that GLS had a one-line advertisement in the phone book under the heading of "nutritionists," using the name "Nutritional Research" at the Cheetham property address. According to Cheetham, this was GLS's most effective form of outreach to the public; when people called to express an interest in nutrition, it gave GLS an opportunity to relate nutritional questions to spirituality. Cheetham believed that "[a]t least 80 percent" of GLS's current members came to the group through the nutrition route; the others were referrals.6

GLS presented the ZBA with documentary evidence establishing that other area churches also housed ancillary services, including youth centers, preschools, day-care centers, multipurpose rooms, gymnasiums, a coffee bar, a dance studio, a book store, a printing office, libraries, offices, and kitchens, and that many of them had large garages. GLS also presented documentary evidence indicating that a number of area churches offered counseling services, ministerial training, and other ministerial services, such as performing weddings or funerals, for a fee. Finally, GLS provided documents showing that several churches had sanctuaries that comprise less than 30 percent of the church building.

Following a remand from the trial court to allow the parties to further develop the record, the ZBA concluded that the principal purpose of GLS's proposed building was not for public worship and, therefore, that the proposed building is not a church for purposes of the zoning ordinance.7 Consequently, GLS's SUP application was denied.

On February 24, 2003, while GLS's SUP application was pending with the Township, the township board approved an amendment of § 20.4(E) of the zoning ordinance relating to street-frontage requirements for churches constructed in residential districts. Before this amendment, GLS believed that the Cheetham property met, or would be able to meet, the requirements of § 20.4(E). However, the Cheetham property did not meet the amended requirements. Consequently, GLS applied for a variance from the frontage requirements in § 20.4(E) as amended. The ZBA denied GLSs variance request, concluding that it failed to meet the specific standards for granting a variance set forth in the zoning ordinance.8

In reaching this decision, the ZBA noted the purposes of the requirement from which a variance was sought, as well as the degree of the variance sought. More specifically, the Township planner observed, with the ZBAs concurrence, that the purpose of requiring that a church constructed in a residential zone have 200 feet of frontage on a major street is to ensure adequate sight distance for traffic entering and leaving the church site, to provide sufficient spacing between the access point to the church and adjacent property lines and driveways, to minimize confusion with regard to multiple driveways within a limited distance, to provide reasonable vehicle "stacking space" in front of the church property, and to minimize conflict with adjacent driveways with vehicles turning left into the site. Additionally, the ZBA observed that the Cheetham property has only 66 feet of frontage on a major...

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