Upper Arlington News

Judge sides with Upper Arlington in Tree of Life lawsuit


U.S. District Court Judge George C. Smith has ruled that Upper Arlington did not discriminate against a religious organization that wants open a school in the city’s largest office building.

In a decision filed April 18, Judge George C. Smith sided with the city and found it did not violate equal protection laws or the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in rejecting Tree of Life Christian Ministries’ plans to open a school at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd.

The land-use dispute has been going on since Tree of Life purchased the 254,000-square-foot building in August 2010.

Smith said Upper Arlington treats religious schools no differently than non-religious schools, and noted that all schools are banned from the Office and Research District (ORC), where Tree of Life’s property is located.

Further, the judge found Tree of Life knew schools were not permitted in the ORC before it bought the building, which formerly housed an American Online corporate office.

“(The city) argues, and the court agrees, that any burden imposed on (Tree of Life) was self-inflicted,” Smith wrote. “(Tree of Life) was fully aware of the zoning restrictions when it purchased the building.

“(Tree of Life) was specifically informed by Upper Arlington City Council that ‘a private school is neither a permitted or a conditional use in the Office and Research District and that rezoning is required if (Tree of Life) plans to pursue a private school at this location.”

When Tree of Life was unsuccessful in getting its property rezoned, Smith found that “Tree of Life was treated just as any other private school would have been treated, irrespective of religion.”

Erik Stanley, an attorney for Kansas-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed suit against Upper Arlington on behalf of Tree of Life, said Tree of Life plans to appeal.

“We’re studying the opinion and we’re more than likely going to appeal to the 6th Circuit,” he said. “We believe the Upper Arlington zoning code does violate federal law.”

For more on this story, see the April 24 edition of ThisWeek Upper Arlington News.