Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 31, 2011

Fed Dist Court in NY Dismisses RLUIPA and Equal Protection Claims Lodged by Dissident Hasidic Population in Village

This matter involves the Village of Kiryas Joel, located in the Town of Monroe, Orange County, NY, and is the recent in what has been repeated litigation in state and federal courts over the last twenty years.  The Village is an “enclave” incorporated in 1977 by the late Grand Rebbe of Satmar Hasidisim, Joel Teitelbaum.  While the Village remains populated almost exclusively by followers of Satmar Hasidism, a significant rift exists within the Satmar population in the Village and the plaintiffs are members of dissident population, the Kiryas Joel Alliance (hereinafter KJA). KJA brought the instant action alleging that the Village is a theocracy subject to the dictates of the defendant Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar of Kiryas Joel (hereinafter the congregation). Allegedly, all elected and appointed Village officials are members of the Congregation. KJA asserts five claims in their Amended Complaint: Violation of the Establishment Clause, Violation of the Free Exercise Clause, Violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and Conspiracy to Violate the Equal Protection Clause.  Specifically, they allege that a law requiring all buildings to have a “community room” violates the Establishment Clause because the purpose and effect of the law is to promote religion (allegedly, all community rooms are used as synagogues and run by Congregation Yetev).  The plaintiffs also assert that as a result of their dissident views, they have been subject to discrimination through “excess municipal fees, reduced police protection, and disparate enforcement of public speech and zoning ordinances.” The complaint alleges that the Village violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by “thwarting” the attempts by the dissident congregation (Bais Yoel), to use a piece of residential property as a synagogue. 

The Court found that the doctrine of res judicata barred the claims regarding alleged discriminatory application of the zoning ordinances. The Equal Protection and Establishment Clause claims arising from application of the zoning ordinances were therefore dismissed with prejudice, as was the RLUIPA claim that was based entirely upon the application of the zoning ordinances.  A number of claims were also dismissed for lack of standing. 

Turning to the merits of the remaining claims where plaintiffs had standing and the claims were not barred by res judicata, the Court turned to the Equal Protection claims but found that the plaintiffs did not allege that the defendants’ actions were motivated by religious differences. 

The plaintiffs also argued that the village violated the Establishment Clause by enacting the community room law. This law requires that every building include a community room or the developer must pay a $5,000 fee. KJA alleges that every community room in the village, save for one, is used as a synagogue. The one room not used as a synagogue is in a building built by a non-party, Prag Realty. KJA alleges that the village tried to levy the fine on Prag Realty because it did not intend on using the room as a synagogue, but the fine was dropped after Prag Realty retained counsel. The Court dismissed this claim for lack of standing because the alleged injury was suffered by a non-party. However, the Court did so without prejudice, giving leave to the plaintiffs to cure the deficiencies which were identified and to bring an amended complaint. 

The Court then turned to the RLUIPA claims. Although it held that these claims are already barred by res judicata, the Court stated that even if they weren’t, they would fail on the merits. The Court held that plaintiffs failed to allege a “substantial burden” because Bais Yoel “has ready alternatives” and is currently using other locations to worship. Further, the complaint does not sufficiently allege that the Village unreasonably limits Bais Yoel’s ability to worship freely in the village. 

Kiryas Joel Alliance v. Village of Kiryas Joel, 2011 WL 5995075 (S.D.N.Y. 11/29/2011) 

The opinion can be accessed here

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