Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 31, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Rules that Village Must Allow Religious Group to Hold Services in Commercial District

Note: This summary appears in the April 2019 Religious Freedom in Focus published by the US Department of Justice and is available at: https://www.justice.gov/crt/religious-freedom-focus-volume-79-april2019#church

On March 29, a federal judge in New York ruled that the Village of Canton must allow the Canton Christian Fellowship Center to begin holding worship services at a property the church purchased in the Village’s commercial district. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York held that the church had shown a likelihood of success in its challenge under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) that the Village had treated it less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions. The court also found that the church would be irreparably harmed if not allowed to begin using the property for Sunday worship on March 31 since it had nowhere else to go, and held that issuing an emergency “preliminary injunction” was in the public interest.

The case, Christian Fellowship Centers of New York, Inc. v. Village of Canton, involves a congregation that purchased a building in the Village’s commercial zoning district that had previously been used as a “gentleman’s club” to use as a church. After the Village denied zoning approval, the church sued, alleging that the Village violated RLUIPA by excluding it while allowing various nonreligious assemblies in the same district.

On March 26, the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest supporting the church’s request for a preliminary injunction. The United States argued that the church had shown a likelihood that it would succeed on its claim that the Village violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision because there is no basis on which to exclude places of worship while allowing fraternal organizations, theaters, social clubs, and other nonreligious assemblies.

Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA states that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” This provision, according to lead sponsors Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, was included in RLUIPA because “[z]oning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meetings halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. . . . Churches have been denied the right to meet in rented storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters and skating rinks—in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.” (quoted in DOJ’s Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA).

The federal court agreed with the church and the United States.  The court held that since the Village’s commercial zone “permits property owners to host meetings for nearly every purpose – business, governmental, ‘educational,’ ‘fraternal,’ ‘social club,’ ‘charitable,’ or ‘philanthropic,’-except for religious purposes,” the Village has likely violated RLUIPA by excluding the church. The court likewise held that a state law meant to protect churches from the purported offensiveness of being near liquor-serving establishments could not be used as a reason to exclude the church when the church simply wants to be treated the same as other assemblies in the zone as required by federal law.

Christian Fellowship Centers of NY, Inc v Village of Canton, 2019 WL 1428344 (NDNY 3/29/2019)


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