Thursday, September 27, 2012

Court upholds religious discrimination judgment in Town-Church dispute

The Court of Appeals has upheld a judgment in favor of a church that sued a Westchester County community for religious discrimination after the Town of Greenburgh interfered with the plaintiffs' efforts to build a new church. This ruling has several broad holdings that expand the rights of religious plaintiffs to challenge governmental decisions that substantially burden land-use decisions.

The case is Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, decided on September 24. This case reached the Second Circuit after a 26-day bench trial. In light of the standard of review on appeal, which defers to the trial court's factual findings, the Second Circuit's summary of the church's efforts to build a new facility on its property can be summed up like this: the Town screwed over the church in imposing burdensome conditions for SEQRA (or environmental impact) approval. One twist here is that the Town Supervisor, Paul Feiner, was concerned about the church's tax-exempt status and wanted the church to donate a fire truck in lieu of taxes. This is among the reasons why Judge Robinson said the Town acted in bad faith and violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Free Exercise and the Equal Protection Clause.

Here's how the Court of Appeals affirms the district court's ruling. First, it holds for the first time that the Town can violate RLUIPA by abusing the SEQRA process. RLUIPA deals with zoning laws that infringe on religious rights. While SEQRA is not really a zoning law, the Town used SEQRA review as a vehicle for determining the zoning issues related to the church's land use proposal. "The Town's actions during the review process and its denial of the Church's proposal constituted an application of its zoning laws sufficient to implicate RLUIPA." This is a far-reaching ruling.

Second, the Town imposed a substantial burden on plaintiffs' religious rights in violation of RLUIPA. The Town acted in bad faith in imposing unreasonable barriers that prevented the church from going forward with a necessary expansion. The Second Circuit credits the district court's analysis in finding that the Town acted arbitrarily and disingenuously and manipulated the SEQRA process to derail the church's project "after it refused to accede to its demand for a payment in lieu of taxes."

Third, the church has a free exercise claim under the First Amendment. After sidestepping whether cases like this require strict scrutiny or rational basis review, the Court says that the Town denied the church's application without any rational basis and that the Town's witnesses at trial were not credible.

Fourth, the church has a viable "class of one" claim under the Equal Protection Clause. While the church did not identify a single one-on-one comparator, it proved through multiple comparators that the conditions that the Town imposed in the project were not applied to other projects. Here is another broad rule applied by the Court: "Where, as here, the issues compared are discrete and not cumulative or affected by the character of the project as a whole, multiple comparators are sufficient so long as the issues being compared are so similar that differential treatment cannot be explained by anything other than discrimination." The Church wins this claim because it "provided overwhelming evidence that its application was singled out by the Town for disparate treatment."

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