Religious freedom or ‘life safety?’ Clash over Dallas apartment complexes lands in federal court

The owner of two apartment complexes in Northeast Dallas’ Vickery Meadow neighborhood says that city employees wanted to rid the property of “religiously motivated organizations and community prayer.” But attorneys for Dallas say their demands for repairs and permits are aimed at “ongoing life-safety issues” at the complexes.

By Bret Jaspers, KERA NewsJune 20, 2022 10:15 am, ,

From KERA News:

For the owner of two apartment complexes in Northeast Dallas’ Vickery Meadow neighborhood, the issue is religious freedom. He says the city of Dallas targeted him and his tenants with “harassing inspections,” and city employees wanted to rid the property of “religiously motivated organizations and community prayer.”

That owner, Dallas-based Nuran, Inc., has taken these complaints to federal court. It sued the city for religious discrimination last month.

But attorneys for Dallas paint a very different picture. They say their demands for repairs and permits are aimed at “ongoing life-safety issues” at the complexes. City codes, they maintain, “protect the health and safety of residents.”

Complicating things even further is the role of two religious nonprofit organizations that provide food and instruction to the many refugees who live in the apartments. The city said one of those groups originally tipped them off about apartment conditions, registering complaints “on behalf of their refugee clients.” Now, those groups have filed statements supporting the landlord’s religious discrimination suit.

The federal judge in the case, Brantley Starr, has indicated Nuran might not get much traction in his court. In blunt terms, Starr said he’s likely to rule that the federal court should abstain from the dispute because the religious arguments can be made in state court.

But Nuran attorney Aamer Ravji notes there still isn’t a final decision in the federal case and the city has yet to formally file its response. He said he thinks there’s a strong argument that the law allows a federal court to rule.

Religious spaces

The Vickery Meadow neighborhood is a well-known destination for refugees in resettlement programs funded by the U.S. government. They hail from all over the world and practice many different forms of worship.

Nuran, Inc. said it has over 600 apartment units in the neighborhood. Its two complexes — The Ivy Apartments and Sunchase Square — sit less than two miles from the intersection of Buckner Boulevard and North Central Expressway.

Some residents use a refurbished laundry room at the Ivy to pray — people call it both a “prayer room” and a “mosque.” Modest in size, the room has white and tan walls and a blue, patterned carpet. A simple wooden rack in the lobby gives worshippers a place to put their shoes.

Landlords say the room is used by a wide variety of their apartment residents.

“There are Afghani people that are using the mosque, there are Somali Muslims using the mosque, there are Burmese Muslims using the mosque,” said Sally Nuran, the property manager.

This prayer room — and two community rooms where religious organizations give out food and conduct English and Bible study — are at the center of the dispute between the landlord and the city. Dallas’ attempts to enforce the city code, and a subsequent lawsuit it filed in a state district court to press the issue, led Nuran, Inc. to close the rooms as it made repairs and obtained permits. A judge-approved agreement forged in February included a series of inspections.

“Nuran, Inc. shall either immediately cease or continue to cease occupancy and use of any unpermitted uses including but not limited to the Community Service Centers and Prayer Room on The Properties without certificate of occupancy from the building official,” the court order said.

But the agreement is now threatened. The company asked a state judge to dissolve the pact the same week it filed the federal case.

A lawyer for Nuran, Inc. told KERA that because the pact doesn’t specify what’s required, it’s “not really an agreement at all.”

Nuran’s federal lawsuit alleges the city’s enforcement of its codes was a “false pretense,” part of a “crusade against religious organizations on the property.”

The Dallas city attorney’s office told KERA it could not comment on the litigation.

Public spaces

Both property manager Sally Nuran and the company’s owner, Kevin Nuran, insist the prayer and community rooms are exclusively for people who live in the Ivy or Sunchase. That’s a key point of contention. If the prayer and community rooms were used exclusively by residents of the Ivy and Sunchase, they may not need a certificate of occupancy from the city.

“Religious activities provided for the exclusive use of the residents and their guests of the apartment complex … may be considered an accessory use” under city code, Little David Session Jr., a Dallas building official, said in an affidavit.

But the city contends these spaces were regularly open to the larger Vickery Meadow community, and submitted as evidence several examples of online descriptions and ads. Therefore, the city said the rooms require permits.

“The City adopted its zoning regulations and building code provisions to protect the health and safety of its residents,” the city attorney’s office wrote in legal filings. “Plaintiff’s failure to comply with the city’s zoning and permitting … places its tenants and the community in harm’s way.”

An attorney for Nuran, Inc. said even if people from other parts of the neighborhood used these rooms, it wasn’t something the landlords were actively encouraging. They said they advised tenants the prayer room was for their use only.

Outside groups

A puzzling part of the drama is the role of two religious nonprofits who used the community rooms. ICNA Relief, a Muslim group, handed out prepackaged food and supplies. (ICNA stands for Islamic Circle of North America.) The Christian organization Refugee Resources conducted English classes and Bible study.

Leaders of both groups filed declarations that were submitted with Nuran, Inc.’s federal suit against Dallas. In separate statements, Muhammed Hussain, the Director of the South-Central Region of ICNA Relief, and Alysa Marx, founder of Refugee Resources, asked the court to let them restart their work at the Sunchase Square Apartments.

Neither group, nor any individual worshipper, is a direct party to the religious discrimination suit. The only named plaintiff is Nuran, Inc.

Both ICNA Relief and Refugee Resources, however, were also mentioned in the city’s original code compliance lawsuit. In fact, one of them may have played a crucial role.

“In early 2021, one nonprofit contacted the City to register complaints on behalf of their refugee clients living at The Properties,” that city stated in its petition.

KERA tried unsuccessfully to interview Hussain and Marx. Hussain texted that he was traveling and unavailable. Marx did not respond to multiple emails.

“We haven’t been able to identify who — if there was actually somebody that complained,” said Jack Ternan, an attorney for Nuran, Inc.

Land use, religious discrimination, and the law

The federal law Nuran is using to bring its claim is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). It shields religious groups from discrimination in the form of zoning, code enforcement, and other land use laws. It also protects the religious rights of prisoners. Other laws that Nuran cited include the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“RLUIPA and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the free exercise clause — all of them were designed to protect groups like these refugee groups and these minority religious groups to do the very types of things that are listed in this complaint,” said Steven Collis, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. “The only question in my mind is: is that really what’s going on here?”

Collis said that there are many examples past and present of government officials using code violations or zoning to infringe on the ability for a minority group to worship. But in this case, he said, Nuran, Inc.’s monetary interest “complicates things dramatically.”

The city has already challenged Nuran’s right to sue, claiming the company does not have “standing.” The company must prove it suffered an injury to its “legally protected interest.” There is also a question about the degree to which Dallas’s code enforcement put a burden on the landlord’s practice of religion.

Resolving the legal arguments could take months — maybe years.

The original code compliance lawsuit against Nuran, Inc., alleged many issues at the two apartment complexes. “These conditions pose a substantial risk of injury or adverse health impact” to people other than the landlord, city attorneys wrote.

Owner Kevin Nuran said that yes, there were repairs that needed to be made — like at any apartment complex. But he and his lawyers said the city’s requests were over the top.

“I’m not an absentee owner. I’m here every single day,” he said. “Anybody that has any issues … they come and tell me.”

Nuran attorney Aamer Ravji said filing the federal suit was not to muddy the waters in the code compliance case.

“Religious freedom rights were being infringed upon by the city, asking them to unlawfully close places of prayer,” he said. “That had nothing to do with the city code.”

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