County Can Kiss Wedding Permit Scheme Goodbye

By Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson

A would-be wedding vendor has reason to celebrate after the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Dec. 7 revived his First Amendment suit against the County of Ventura, Calif.

The county’s permitting scheme for outdoor weddings gave “unbridled discretion” to permitting officials and therefore cannot stand, the Ninth Circuit said.

The permitting scheme specified seven conditions that must be satisfied to obtain the necessary permit, including that the wedding not be “obnoxious or harmful” to neighboring properties and must not be “detrimental to the public interest, health, safety, convenience, or welfare,” the court said.

But none of those requirements were “definite and specific” enough to provide “adequate safeguards,” it said. Such safeguards are necessary to protect against “content-based censorship” by permitting officials.

The Ninth Circuit sent the case back to the lower court to determine if a preliminary injunction would be proper.

The opinion wasn’t a total honeymoon for the vendor, however.

The court held that he couldn’t press his Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act claim because he isn’t “a religious institution or assembly.”

The court sided with several other circuits, including the Third, Fifth, and Eleventh, in holding that only such entities could press RLUIPA “equal treatment” claims—that is, claims that the government treated a religious assembly or institution less favorably than a nonreligious one.

Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined by Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Jacqueline H. Nguyen.

Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP, Los Angeles, represented the vendor. The County of Ventura County Counsel, Ventura, represented the county.

The case is Epona LLC v. Cnty. of Ventura , 2017 BL 438947, 9th Cir., No. 17-55472, 12/7/17 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com

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