fed.  District Court in WI Upholds Rejection of Athletic Field Lights Over Claims of Religious Discrimination

fed. District Court in WI Upholds Rejection of Athletic Field Lights Over Claims of Religious Discrimination

This post was originally published on the RLUIPA Defense blog by Evan Seeman, Esq. and Madeleine Laffitte, Esq. from Robinson Cole and reposted with permission.

On December 30, 2022, the district court dismissed the Catholic high school’s RLUIPA challenge, rendering a summary judgment on all claims in favor of the City of Madison, Wisconsin, and various other city (City) officials. As ruled by the court, the City does not discriminate against Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart, Inc. on religious grounds when rejecting Edgewood’s latest conditional use permit application for outdoor lighting on the school’s athletic field. Edgewood’s attempts to install outdoor lights to use his own farm at night, instead of using one 15 minutes’ drive east of his campus, proved fruitless.

The court first ruled that Edgewood could not establish a breach of the RLUIPA equivalence provisions. In the absence of substantial evidence that the City favorably treated similarly located secular schools (namely, by allowing outdoor lighting for the athletic fields), Edgewood could not confirm that the schools were discriminated against on the basis of religion. The court noted a lack of evidence that the City acted with religious hostility. Instead, in supporting the Plan Commission’s rejection of Edgewood’s conditional use permit application, Common Council relied on good testimony and studies from neighbors and neighborhood associations. These studies show that the proposed addition of light and sound equipment will greatly increase noise levels, which are already considered excessive and disruptive. The court agreed that the General Council’s reference to noise and light interference, in addition to the potential adverse effect on property value and existing doubts regarding Edgewood’s ability to comply with the recommended limits, constitutes substantial evidence in favor of the General Council’s final decision to appeal.

Edgewood’s substantial weight claim did not fare any better. The court stated: “Even if the court will consider football that night (as opposed to the various sports played in PE class and on the training ground) was an important element of Edgewood’s religious practice, which it certainly did not provide, the plaintiff’s bid NO evidence that it is substantially burdened by having to play a nightly home game on a different pitch.” The court also dismissed Edgewood’s free speech and free exercise claims.

Beyond resolving the RLUIPA issues, the licensing background that led to Edgewood’s filing of a complaint should also serve as a wake-up call to religious and secular institutions. When the City of Madison introduced a Campus-Institution District in 2013, existing educational institutions were given the option of adopting the Master Plan or remaining subject to the existing zoning zones. Edgewood chose to participate and submitted its Master Plan in 2014. While the Master Plan identifies existing use of athletic fields as “athletic fields owned by Edgewood High School [and u]sed for team practice, physical education class,” it missed an opportunity to expand the description in anticipation of greater field use. For example, it could describe the field as a “major events facility” like UW-Madison [a secular school] have done in its own Master Plan for its tennis stadium or consider adding a possible extension of the court in the development description proposed in the Master Plan. Unfortunately this proved to be a mistake that cost Edgewood, as evidenced in the court decision.

Decision in Edgewood Sacred Heart High School, Inc. v. Madison CityNo. 21-CV-118-WMC, 2022 WL 18024626 (WD Wis. 30 Dec. 2022) available here.

Similar Posts