Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 24, 2015

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Denies Summary Judgment in RLUIPA and First Amendment Claims of Discrimination by Village against Catholic Diocese With Respect to a Proposed Cemetery

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York (the “Diocese”) asserted claims against Defendants, The Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, its Board of Trustees, and various individual Village trustees and officials, challenging the Village’s imposition of restrictions, pursuant to its “Places of Worship” zoning law (the “POW Law”), on a proposed Diocese cemetery. On October 17, I 995, the Village Planner, David J. Portman of Frederick P. Clark Associates, Inc. (“FPC”) issued a report that the Diocese’s proposed development of QOP constituted a commercial enterprise or business use of property that was inconsistent with the Village’s comprehensive plan. As a result, the Board passed a Resolution denying the Diocese’s application, concluding that the proposed QOP was not a religious use of real property. The Diocese alleged that the POW Law and Defendants’ conduct relating to its enforcement violated the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

On April 17, 1996, the Diocese commenced an action in Suffolk County Supreme Court against the Village and its Board based on eleven causes of action, including due process violations, exclusionary zoning claims, a free exercise violation, discrimination, denial of equal protection, and failure to accommodate a religious use. The court denied the Diocese’s claim for injunctive relief. In 1998, the Second Department affirmed the trial court’s decision that the determination of whether the Diocese’s proposed cemetery was a religious use presented a factual question; however, it reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment for the Village on the second, third, fourth, seventh and eighth counts, holding that the Diocese’s free exercise, discrimination, equal protection, and exclusionary zoning claims were without merit. The Supreme Court held that a Catholic cemetery was a “religious use” of property under New York law, and ordered that the matter be remitted to the Board with instructions to issue a special permit to allow the Diocese to develop a cemetery on the Property. The Appellate Division remitted the matter to the Board to determine the environmental impact of the Diocese’s proposed development of QOP “including examination under SEQRA of the effect of any possible mitigating measures.”

Plaintiff argued that there was evidence of discriminatory intent because the POW Law was enacted only three months after Plaintiff prevailed in State Court against the Village in January 2001. However, the evidence indicated that the 2001 Amendment process began well before the State Court decision. Because the POW Law was found to be a neutral law of general applicability, it needed to be justified only by a rational basis standard. It passed scrutiny under this standard because the 2001 Amendments regulated building area, building height, building and parking area setbacks from property lines, screening, and traffic circulation to address the potential adverse impacts of large institutional facilities on the residential nature of the Village. The POW Law was therefore found to be facially constitutional.

As to the RLUIPA claim, however, the court found that there were material facts in dispute regarding the issue of whether the Village, through its passage of the Resolution, had imposed a substantial burden on the Diocese with respect to the development and maintenance of QOP, and therefore denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss the claim. Because the substantial burden claims under RLUIPA are intended to mirror the framework of First Amendment free exercise claims, the Plaintiff’s free exercise claims likewise survived summary judgment. However, because Plaintiff failed to identify a comparable secular assembly or institution that was treated more favorably than the Diocese, its equal terms claim was dismissed. Furthermore, Plaintiff failed to cite to any direct evidence of anti-religious sentiment or motivation by Defendants, which led to the dismissal of the Equal Protection claim.

The retaliation claim was supported by the Plaintiff’s allegation that, in response to the State Court Action, the Village tried to delay the QOP permit application and SEQRA process, and also sought to increase the Diocese’s costs by making unreasonable requests for studies and testing. Additionally, the court found the temporal nexus of seven months, coupled with the surrounding circumstances, such as the length and expense of the QOP permitting process and the extensive restrictions in the Resolution, which seemingly go beyond the POW Law’s requirements and were arguably gratuitous, could be viewed as supporting a finding of retaliatory motive on the Village’s part. Accordingly, summary judgment was denied as to this claim as well. Finally, because a dispute of fact existed as to whether the Village official conducted unlawful warrantless searches of Plaintiff’s property, the motion to dismiss this claim was also denied.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, v. The Incorporated Village Of Old Westbury. 09-CV-5195 (PKC) (E.D. N.Y. 9/3/2015)

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