A legal battle spanning nearly seven years between Tree of Life Christian Ministries and the city of Upper Arlington will enter its next chapter this summer.
According to an attorney for Tree of Life, his client and the city will have until the end of June to file motions with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio for a final judgment in an ongoing lawsuit over use of Upper Arlington's largest office building.
Erik Stanley, an attorney for Tree of Life who works for Kansas-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said the two sides set a schedule March 10 that should allow U.S. District Judge George C. Smith to render a decision as to whether Tree of Life will be permitted to open a school at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd.
"We agreed that the parties would file motions for final judgment in the case and those motions would be fully briefed and submitted to the court by the end of June, barring any unforeseen extensions of time," Stanley said. "The case will then be in the hands of Judge Smith to decide."
The case is back in the federal district court after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said last May the U.S. District Court should consider whether Upper Arlington has unfairly denied a religious group an opportunity to operate at the site.
The legal fight began shortly after Tree of Life purchased the 15.8-acre property and office building that formerly housed America Online's corporate office in August 2010.
City officials have maintained the zoning at the site prohibits schools and that Tree of Life's school would generate significantly less revenue than other permitted uses.
In its May 18, 2016, ruling, the Sixth Circuit said the district court must make the determination about possible religious discrimination because Upper Arlington's zoning for the office building would permit other businesses and nonprofit organizations, including hospitals and day care centers, which themselves might not maximize the city's profits.
"The nonreligious uses that the government concedes it would allow seem to be similarly situated to the regulation," the Sixth Circuit ruled. "... (W)e cannot assume as a fact, and the government certainly has offered no evidence to show, that an ambulatory care center (or an outpatient surgery center, or a data and call center, or office space for a not-for-profit organization, or a day care) would employ higher-income workers than TOL Christian Schools would (or result in less traffic or even in less outdoor noise, each an alternative rationale at one point proffered by the government for refusing TOL Christian Schools' application."
This will mark the second time for Smith to preside over the case.
In April 2014, he sided with the city, finding it did not violate equal-protection laws or the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in rejecting Tree of Life's plans to open the school.
A basis for Smith's ruling was that the city's zoning for the office building doesn't permit any schools, public or private, sparking Tree of Life's appeal to the Sixth Circuit.
Stanley has said Tree of Life won't back away from its plans, maintaining that "God led them to this building," and the Religions Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects his client's right to open a school at the site.
Tree of Life representatives have said the school, which eventually would have an enrollment of up to 900 students and a staff of 100, would generate $3 million in annual payroll.
Last week, Stanley said Tree of Life's position hasn't changed.
"Tree of Life remains confident in its legal argument that the city has treated it on unequal terms with other permitted uses in the (Office and Research) zoning district," he said. "We are hopeful the court will rule in Tree of Life's favor and allow it to use the building for a Christian school."
In addition to stating all schools are prohibited at Arlington Centre site, Upper Arlington officials have argued the complex makes up 1.1 percent of the city's total land and is specifically for businesses that would generate substantial commercial tax revenue. They've also said schools are permitted in 95 percent of the city.
Last week, Upper Arlington City Attorney Jeanine Hummer said restricting schools at that site is in the best interests of the city and its residents because the city has targeted it for higher-revenue ventures.
"Tree of Life bought this office building knowing that a school is prohibited by our zoning code," Hummer said. "We have been asked by the courts to prove that a school use at this office building does not maximize revenue to pay for city services.
"Now we have evidence proving that we zoned this office building correctly and that an office use would be much better for our city and its citizens."