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Yetto v. City of Jackson

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

June 28, 2019

CITY OF JACKSON, JERRY GIST, in his official capacity as mayor, and ELVIS HOLLIS, in his official capacity as city planner, Defendants.



         Plaintiffs Shari and Paul Yetto filed this action against the City of Jackson, Tennessee, Mayor Jerry Gist, in his official capacity, and City Planner Elvis Hollis, in his official capacity, under the equal-terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc-2000cc-5, and under 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. In addition to damages, Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment ruling that the Zoning Ordinance at issue in this case does not regulate the type of religious gatherings held by them in their home, as well as a permanent injunction prohibiting the enforcement of the Zoning Ordinance against them and their religious gatherings.[1]

         On February 5, 2019, the Court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment on Plaintiffs' § 1983 claim on the ground that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations and denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment and Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim because there were disputed issues of material fact that precluded summary judgment. (ECF No. 43.)

         The case was tried without a jury on February 28, 2019. In accordance with the Court's instructions, both parties have submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. (ECF Nos. 64, 65.) The Court, having considered the evidence presented at trial, including its credibility determinations, the arguments of counsel, the relevant case law, and the entire record, makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 52.[2]

         Findings of Fact

         1. The Yettos are a married couple and two of the founders of a non-profit religious organization known as the Temple of the Ancient Ones.

         2. The Temple of the Ancient Ones is a 501(c)(3) religious organization.

         3. Prior to her marriage, Shari Yetto owned the two adjacent plots of land in the city of Jackson, Tennessee, where she and her husband live and where the religious gatherings at issue in this case occurred. One of the plots of land is located at 203 Harts Bridge Road. The other plot of land is on the corner of Dustin Road, which is adjacent to the plot at 203 Harts Bridge Road. One plot is owned in fee simple not subject to any liens or encumbrances, while the other is owned subject to a mortgage.

         4. Although Paul Yetto does not own the property in question, he has resided there since his marriage and has contributed to improvements and maintenance of the property.

         5. The Yettos follow the Pagan faith tradition, an “earth-based” religion through which they celebrate Pagan gods and goddesses. There are ten to fifteen members of the Temple of the Ancient Ones who gather to perform Pagan religious traditions at the Yettos' residence. Each year the members hold between twenty and thirty gatherings, with each gathering lasting thirty to forty-five minutes. At the end of the gatherings, the members share a meal.

         6. During these gatherings, the Temple's members gather in a circle that is marked by stones and has an altar; the members worship their god and goddess during a traditional written Pagan ritual that is presided over by Paul Yetto, the Temple's high priest.

         7. The gatherings occurred over a period of approximately five and a half years prior to this litigation.

         8. The property in question is the private residence of the Yettos and consists of a house and barn. There are no building or instruction rooms or other portions of the property dedicated to the gatherings. The residence is not open to the public. There are no regular hours for congregants to visit and use the facilities. The Temple of the Ancient Ones does not own any part of the property.

         9. In March 2016, Elvis Hollis, a city planner, received an anonymous complaint over the telephone in which the caller reported that someone was operating a church on the Yettos' property, which is in a residential neighborhood. This was the only complaint received by the City concerning the use of the property.

         10. After receiving the anonymous phone call, Hollis drove by the property and observed a sign labeled “Temple of the Ancient Ones.”[3]

         11. On March 31, 2016, Hollis, on behalf of the City's Planning Department, sent a letter to the Yettos with a subject line that read: “ZONING VIOLATION AT 203 Harts Bridge Road, Jackson, TN 38301.” The letter stated:

Our office has been made aware that there may be a church operating at this location.... Churches or similar places of worship are uses permitted as special exceptions within [the RS-1] zoning classification. Therefore, you must obtain approval by the City Board of Zoning Appeals in order to operate a church at this location. A site plan that includes an off-street parking area must be submitted along with your application to appear before this board which meets on the fourth Monday of every month. In addition, the structure used for this purpose must be in compliance with all building and fire codes. The use of this property for a church should be discontinued until the process outlined above is completed.[4]

         The letter provided that “[f]ailure to correct this problem within thirty (30) days of your receipt of this letter will result in further action by the City of Jackson.” “Further action” was explained as:

[A]ny person violating any provision of the City of Jackson Zoning Ordinance who fails to correct said violation within this notification period shall be issued an injunction through the Environmental Court to correct this problem or face a fine of Fifty Dollars ($50.00) for each separate violation until the required action has been taken or face imprisonment not to exceed ten (10) days. Each day that any such violation continues shall constitute a separate violation.

         12. Hollis sent the letter in response to the complaint from the anonymous caller and his observance of the Temple sign on the Yettos' property.

         13. Pursuant to the City's Zoning Ordinance, each zoning category has uses that are permitted uses, uses that are prohibited, and uses that are permitted only with approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals by a special exception. The Board of Zoning Appeals may attach conditions for approval of requests for special exceptions.

         14. To get a special-use exception, a property owner must submit an application, a letter of justification, a site plan, and pay a fee; after the application is completed, the request is placed on the agenda for the next Board of Zoning Appeals meeting. As part of the process for obtaining a special exemption, an applicant must appear before the Board. The application fee for obtaining a special exemption is $100.

         15. The Yettos' property is located in a RS-1 single family residential district. Churches or similar places of worship are not permitted in residential districts except by special exception.[5]

         The City of Jackson Zoning Ordinance, art. V § 2, provides, in relevant part:

Following public notice and hearing and subject to appropriate conditions and safeguards, the Board of Zoning Appeals may permit, as special exceptions:

         1. Churches or similar places of worship

         16. The Zoning Ordinance does not define the phrase “churches or similar places of worship, ” and the City maintains no policies or guidance with respect to the definition or interpretation of “churches or similar places of worship” as that phase is used in the Zoning Ordinance.

         17. The Planning Department reviews applications for special exceptions and makes recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals through a planning staff report. Before the Board meeting, a planning staff member orally reviews the recommendations with the applicant. At the Board meeting, the planning staff presents the recommendations. At this meeting, the applicant can present reasons as to why the Board should reject any conditions set forth in the recommendations. Members of the Board are not City employees, but rather citizens appointed by the mayor and city council. The Board has final authority on whether to accept, alter, or reject the recommendations made by the planning staff. The Board has the final decision on whether to grant or deny a special-use exception application and to determine any conditions. The Board does not always accept the recommendations of the planning staff.

         18. When the Planning Department receives a complaint about a possible zoning violation, a form letter is sent to the property owner on whose property the violation allegedly occurred. If the property owner responds and denies the alleged violation, no further action is taken, unless the Planning ...

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