A community defending a Religious Land Use action may not identify and depose donors

May a community defending a RLUIPA action seek to identify and depose donors to a religious organization? In Tree of Life Christian School v. City of Upper Arlington, 2012 U.S. Dist, LEXIS 32205 (03.12.12) the Court answered no based on First Amendment free association concerns.

Briefly, in the Tree of Life case, the school purchased land in the City of Upper Arlington, Ohio in an attempt to consolidate its religious facilities into one area. After the purchase was made, the City denied the school the ability to use the property for religious training and a substantial burden RLUIPA case followed. Discovery revealed that the school was provided a donation to purchase the land from one person. The City sought to find out who made the gift and depose the donor in an attempt to inquire if the donor would be willing to donate money to purchase another parcel of land.

In reviewing the federal discovery rules, in light of the Constitutional right of free association, the Court agreed that in some narrow instances, the Constitutional rights of free association trumps the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and discovery. In reviewing the case law following the limitation of disclosure in light of free association rights, the Court held that the City was precluded from inquiring the names of donors and taking the donors deposition. Having determined that naming and deposing the donor would have a “chilling effect” on the school; the Court assessed the City’s interest in obtaining disclosure. Finding the information relevant, but not crucial to the defense of the case, the Court found that the information sought was speculative at best.

This ruling is significant in religious land use cases given that substantial burden cases under RLUIPA, and the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause are fact intensive and discovery in federal actions are broad in scope. Despite the same, the Court recognized that discovery has its limits and following the line of First Amendment cases over the past century, inquiry of donors and the sought after discovery of the same is constitutionally prohibited.

The RLUIPA lawyers at Dalton & Tomich plc will continue to monitor this case through the proceedings.