SJC Applies Dover Amendment’s “Primary Purpose” Test and Exempts Religious Camp Development From Zoning Use Regulation

What should courts consider when deciding which developments for religious or educational purposes are exempt from local zoning regulation? In its recent decision, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Inc. v. Planning Board of Monterey, the Supreme Judicial Court tackled this question posed by the Dover Amendment. The Dover Amendment, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40A, § 3, applies to projects proposed for religious or educational purposes, including those put forth by colleges and universities. Here, reviewing a religious purpose, the Court held that a religious organization’s proposal to build an RV camp for attendees, volunteers, and staff is exempt from Monterey’s zoning regulations under the Dover Amendment, because the “primary and dominant purpose” of building the RV camp was, ultimately, a religious one.

Plaintiff Hume Lake Christian Camps, Inc. (“Hume”), a California-based nonprofit evangelical Christian organization, operates a camp in Monterey, Massachusetts, which provides attendees with chapel sessions, religious instruction, and spiritual reflection, in addition to secular recreational activities. Hume has served over 4,800 campers on its more than four hundred acres of property in Monterey. To provide additional lodging for attendees, volunteers, and seasonal staff, Hume applied to the planning board of Monterey (“board”) in 2019 to build an RV camp on its property. The board denied the project on the ground that the Dover Amendment, which precludes municipalities from adopting zoning ordinances or bylaws that "prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or for educational purposes on land owned or leased by [them],” did not apply because the RV camp was not an exempt religious use.

On appeal, the Land Court conducted a two-day trial and a view of Hume’s property. Finding that Hume’s religiously significant goal was the primary or dominant purpose of the campground, the Land Court determined that use of the RV camp for campers was exempt under the Dover Amendment, overturning so much of the board’s decision as had determined otherwise. It affirmed, however, the board’s decision that housing volunteers and seasonal staff at the camp was not exempt because that use of the RV camp was a primarily financial – not religious – purpose. Both parties appealed.

Taking the case on its own motion, the SJC asked two questions. First, whether Hume’s proposed use had as its “bona fide goal” something that can “reasonably” be described as religiously significant. Second, whether this religiously significant goal was the “primary or dominant” purpose for which the land or structures would be used. The Court explained that the proper inquiry was not whether each individual use of the RV camp would be exempt but, rather, because the RV camp was a single structure, whether the RV camp as a whole could pass this “religious purpose test.”

The Court concluded that the Dover Amendment applies, and the planning board could not preclude Hume’s proposed uses for the RV camp. The proposed RV camp is exempt because it strengthened attendance at the camp, which “serve[d] to promote Hume’s religious goals” by “cultivat[ing] an environment in which individuals are likely to develop their faith.” The Court emphasized that a “religious purpose” encompasses more than only a “typical” religious use – thought of generally as worship or religious instruction – and instead includes “a variety of accessory uses” that are “components of a broader religious project, and that facilitate the functioning of that project.” For example, the Court identified church parking lots or cafeterias as such accessory uses that may be exempt under the Dover Amendment. The alternative approach – requiring that each use of land or structures itself had to be religious – would make it virtually impossible for an organization to take advantage of the Dover Amendment’s exemptions. The RV camp, the Court explained, facilitates the operations of the camp and strengthens attendance at the Monterey location, including by encouraging attendance and providing a cost-saving alternative to more permanent lodging. Using the dominant purpose analysis, this use of the proposed RV camp would facilitate Hume’s religious goals.

The Takeaway

This decision clarifies that courts need not apply the “religious purpose test” narrowly to each of a religious organization’s proposed uses. Instead, courts should review more wholistically whether a proposed use is accessory to a more dominant religious purpose and, therefore, exempt under the Dover Amendment. If you have questions about this post or are an institution with questions about how these laws apply to you, contact Rose Law Partners.