Editor’s Note: The following appeared in the USDOJ Religious Freedom Focus Newsletter in December 2016. It is available: https://www.justice.gov/crt/religious-freedom-focus-volume-68-december2016#ny
A federal court in New York entered a consent decree on November 23 resolving allegations by the United States that the City of Port Jervis, New York, violated a church’s rights under RLUIPA when it changed its zoning code to ban places of worship in two zoning districts where they were previously allowed as of right. The order resolves a lawsuit brought by the United States in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York after the Goodwill Evangelical Presbyterian Church entered into a contract to purchase property within one of those zones to use as a church.
Goodwill Church has a longstanding main location in Montgomery, New York. In recent years, with a growing congregation, it opened two additional branches in New Paltz and Port Jervis. Initially, its Port Jervis branch was operating out of a small rented space, which it had access to only on Sunday mornings. Seeking a permanent and more appropriate space in the City’s downtown area, in mid-2015 the Church located a property in Port Jervis’s Central Business District, which permitted places of worship as of right.
As the Goodwill Church prepared to close on the property in November 2015, the city passed a law removing places of worship as permitted used in the Central Business District, as well as the City’s Service Commercial District. The law, the United States alleged, was passed out of concern that the presence of the Goodwill Church, or other churches, could discourage commercial development, including discouraging establishments serving liquor due to a state law regulating the proximity of liquor serving establishments to places of worship and schools.
On November 21, 2016, the United States filed suit to enforce compliance with RLUIPA. The suit alleged that the zoning change imposed a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of the Goodwill Church, and that the city violated RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1), which requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies. The commercial zones permit fraternal organizations and nonprofit membership clubs, preschools, day-care centers, and nursery schools, while excluding churches.
Under the consent order reached with the United States, the city is required to amend its zoning laws and regulations to repeal the ban on the use of property for places of worship in the two zoning districts at issue and to treat religious assemblies or institutions equally with nonreligious assemblies or institutions. The consent decree also requires the city to provide training on the requirements of RLUIPA to certain city officials and officers, among other requirements.