The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) hopes to educate Clackamas County on religious freedom via a lawsuit filed to enforce a church’s protected right to let a small Christian school operate on its real property.
On December 31, PJI filed suit against Clackamas County on behalf of Faith on Hill Church and Skopos Christian School in Portland’s federal court. Skopos is a small Christian private school with less than 30 students that, with Faith on Hill’s blessing, currently operates out of an “education wing” in the church’s building in Clackamas County, a Portland suburb.
In 1977, the county granted Faith on Hill a permit to construct the education wing for purposes of Christian education, a vital part of Judeo-Christian tradition for more than 2,000 years. When Skopos became displaced from its former home in early 2019, Faith on Hill offered to let the school use its wing because their religious and educational views and missions align.
Soon after Skopos began operating out of the education wing in August 2019, the county began sending the church letters asserting that letting Skopos operate on the church’s property constituted a “change of use” that violated the permit’s terms and demanding that the church apply for a new permit. As Skopos—which has nowhere else to go—continued to operate out of the education wing without the county’s approval, the county began fining Faith on Hill to coerce the church to apply for a new permit. When attempts to resolve the matter with the county informally did not work—and after the county significantly increased the amount of the fines in December—PJI filed suit on behalf of both the school and the church under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
“Essentially, the county has been fining the church for letting Skopos use its wing in a manner consistent with the terms of the church’s permit,” said Ray Hacke, PJI’s Oregon-based attorney. “Nothing in the permit limits the wing’s use to Sunday school classes and Wednesday night Bible studies. The wing is being used for what it was built for, and suing under RLUIPA was the only way to stop the county from misusing its power to suppress religious exercise.”
Enacted in 2000, RLUIPA prohibits municipalities from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion absent a compelling interest that makes it necessary—and even then, any burden on the free exercise of religion must be minimal. RLUIPA also prohibits municipalities from treating churches on less than equal terms than similarly situated secular counterparts or otherwise discriminating against religious assemblies.
The county’s actions toward Faith on Hill and Skopos violate both RLUIPA provisions: They substantially burden Faith on Hill and Skopos’ ability to partner with one another for purposes of Christian education, and public schools regularly open their facilities to outside organizations without having to apply for new permits.
“RLUIPA favors broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the U.S. Constitution,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “Clackamas County is needlessly trying to break up a mutually beneficial partnership between Faith on Hill and Skopos and trampling on religious freedom in the process. PJI is taking the county to school on this one—the county is going to learn the hard way that it cannot stifle religious freedom without consequences.”