Religious camp loses appeal against Rush County CAFO

A Rush County religious camp has lost its appeal of the grant of a confined animal feeding operation to a local farm after the Indiana Court of Appeals found the Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals did not err in approving the CAFO.

In November 2015, Milco Dairy Farm, LLC filed a permit with the Rush County BZA for approval for a CAFO for 1,400 head of cattle, presenting the board with evidence that it would not cause runoff, and of its plans to reduce noxious odors. But House of Prayer Ministries, Inc., which hosts a summer camp a half-mile downwind from the proposed CAFO, objected to the permit request on the grounds that the CAFO’s waste and odors would endanger its events and become a nuisance.

During a break before the BZA’s vote, Rush County Commissioner Mark Bacon attempted to speak with BZA member Craig Trent, but Trent told Bacon he could not speak to him and walked away. The board then granted the special exception for the CAFO.

House of Prayer filed for judicial review, which the Fayette Circuit Court denied. The religious organization then appealed, but the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling on Tuesday.

Specifically, Judge Edward Najam wrote House of Prayer’s challenges to the BZA’s considerations of the “public interest” and the effect of the CAFO on surrounding properties were requests to reweigh the evidence, or to ignore evidence that support the board’s decision. Thus, the board did not act contrary to law on those grounds, Najam said.

House of Prayer also argued the board erred in allowing the CAFO to be located one-half mile from its property, rather than a full mile, the distance required under the local zoning ordinance to separate CAFOs from schools. However, the BZA was not required to adopt a broad definition of “school” to include a summer camp, Najam said, and its interpretation of a “school” does not violate the Equal Privileges and Immunities Clause under Article 1, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution.

Next, the religious camp asserted that Bacon’s attempt to speak to Trent during the break before the vote violated its rights to an impartial hearing. But because the record did not show Bacon was successful in his attempt to speak to Trent, there was no evidence of ex parte communication, Najam said, so House of Prayer’s impartial hearing argument fails.

Finally, the appellate court rejected the argument that the special exception violated House of Prayer’s rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Specifically, the court found the RLUIPA argument was not available to the camp because it has no property interest in the land in question, while also finding the BZA was entitled to credit Milco’s evidence with respect to its plans to limit run-off and noxious odors.

House of Prayer also raised a religious rights argument under Article 1, Sections 2 and 3 of the Indiana Constitution, but in keeping with its ruling throughout the opinion, the appellate court found the grant of the special exception “will not materially burden House of Prayer’s religious rights … .”

The case is House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. d/b/a Harvest Christian Camp v. Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals, Milco Dairy Farm, LLC, 21A01-1707-MI-1693.

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