On September 24, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a 2010 decision that found a New York town violated the constitutional rights of a Pentecostal church that owned property in the Town, effectively ending the fourteen-year saga between the parties.
In 1998, Fortress Bible Church purchased a 6.5 acre parcel in the Town of Greenburgh, with the hopes of constructing a 500-seat church and K-12 school on the property. Before it could begin, the Church needed approval from Town zoning officials. It also had to meet certain requirements under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), which requires analyses about the potential environmental impacts of a land use development, including the effects of traffic and accessing to the property. The Town conducted a nearly five-year land-use review of Fortress Bible’s plans. Even after the Church modified its plans to satisfy SEQRA, the Town still refused to approve the project.
At a July 2000 meeting, the Town’s Supervisor stated his concern with the Church’s tax-exempt status. In lieu of paying taxes, the Supervisor asked the Church to donate a fire truck or make some other form of donation, which the Church declined.
When the Town had still not approved the Church’s plans in 2003, Fortress Bible sued, alleging the Town’s actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the Church’s constitutional rights to free exercise and equal protection. After a 26-day bench trial, the district judge ruled in favor of Fortress Bible, finding that the Town’s Supervisor acted in bad faith when he directed Town employees (including attorneys and consultants) to try to find ways to deny the Church’s application. Greenburgh’s Supervisor claimed that its denial was not religious discrimination, but rather was in response to legitimate traffic and safety concerns.
The Town appealed, and on Monday the Second Circuit unanimously upheld the verdict, affirming that the Town violated the church’s rights under RLUIPA and the First Amendment. Fortress Bible will likely seek at least $5 million in damages from Greenburgh. During the pendency of litigation, Fortress Bible was forced to continue to operate out of its deficient facilities, which consist of a 130-seat chapel with no parking lot, and an Academy that holds classes in the Church’s basement and in a nearby converted house.
The team at Dalton & Tomich, PLC has extensive experience in the areas of RLUIPA and constitutional litigation, particularly in the land use context. If you are a religious institution and believe that your constitutional rights have been violated, please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss your case.
Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.
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