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Religious Organization and Village Tussle Over Meaning of RLUIPA

CemeteryRoman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre v. Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, 2015 WL 5178126 (EDNY) involved a lengthy battle over the siting of a religious cemetery in Defendant Village in the face of a newly adopted “Places of Worship” (POW) ordinance, challenged under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection and Free Exercise clauses.  In these proceedings Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, claiming the POW Ordinance was facially unconstitutional, while Defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss all claims.  Note, one claim not treated in this summary deals with New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which involves New York statutory issues.

Plaintiff purchased 95 acres in the Village and sought permission to use the same as a cemetery; however, following the advice of its planner, the Village classified the use as commercial, and rejected the same as being incompatible with its comprehensive plan. In subsequent state court proceedings, the use was classified as “religions” and the Village was ordered to approve the same.  Defendant then enacted a moratorium on special use permits for religious uses and also enacted the POW ordinance after studying the matter for over two years so as to maintain its low-density rural character.  The POW ordinance increased requirements for road frontage, lot size, lot coverage, setbacks, building height, open space and building sprinkling.  When Plaintiff filed its special use permit application, the Village Board heard the matter itself and declared the use would have a significant impact on the environment, so an environmental impact statement (EIS) would be required.  The parties disagreed over a number of issues in the EIS, including groundwater, transportation, buffers, slopes, groundwater and the “psychological impact” of a cemetery.  When after five years the Village had not heard or decided the matter, Plaintiff sued and, seven months thereafter, the application was approved with conditions, including a requirement that Plaintiff seek renewal of the special use every five years.  In renewal proceedings, Defendant could add new conditions or deny the use altogether.  The litigation continued for another five years and work on the cemetery had not commenced.  The court now considered the summary judgment motions of the parties.

Turning first to the facial constitutionality of the POW ordinance, beginning with the Free Exercise clause, which would apply a “rational basis” review to the application of a law of general applicability to religious exercise, but would use strict scrutiny to a law that was either irrational or not generally applicable.  Although the POW is aimed at places of worship, it has a separate secular meaning that is part of a longstanding effort on the part of the Village to assure that these institutions are developed consistent with residential uses and their adverse impacts are mitigated.  The POW law treats religious institutions better than nonprofit schools, the only other institutional use permitted in the Village and better than other clubs, theatres and entertainment venues, which are not allowed in the Village at all.  The POW law was thus found neutral.  The court found no discriminatory animus in the enactment or application of the ordinance and found similar limitations of other uses consistent with the Village’s policy of engendering its rural character.   As the law was neutral and generally applicable, it need satisfy only a rational basis test, which it easily passed with respect to the facial constitutional claim.

The court then turned to Defendants’ summary judgment motion against plaintiff’s “substantial burden” claim under RLUIPA and found that material facts remained, even though Plaintiff could have developed the cemetery for over four years.  That claim would be dealt with at trial.  The Court noted that Plaintiff had made a prima facie case that it was required to change its behavior by preventing the religious cemetery use through arbitrary and unreasonable behavior, inter alia, through the five year review process by which the very purpose of a cemetery – a permanent resting place for bodies – could be lost and the non-use setbacks would reduce the available area for that purpose by 44%.  The trial would also dispose of the factual issues relating to whether Village aesthetics was a compelling state interest and the POW ordinance the least restrictive means of meeting that interest under RLUIPA.  Similarly, because Plaintiff’s Free Exercise claims mirrored their substantial burden claims and the legislative history of RLUIPA supported this interpretation, summary judgment was also denied on these claims.

The court then turned to Plaintiff’s claim that its cemetery use was permitted “on less than equal terms than a nonreligious assembly or institution,” violating RLUIPA.  Defendants alleged Plaintiff failed to set forth any comparator use and that the fact that there was differential treatment of a religious use did not equate to a violation of the “equal terms” requirement.  The court agreed that there was no valid comparator, in that a country club or other clubs or gardens were approved years ago under different land use regimes and there was no comparable “nonreligious assembly or institution” alleged.  Summary judgment was granted on this claim.

The court also found sufficient factual disputes to deny summary judgment on Plaintiff’s retaliation claim in that enactment of the POW regulations occurred after Plaintiff had stricken Defendant’s characterization of the cemetery use as religious, rather than commercial and the deposition testimony of Village officials that supported such an inference.  Similarly, disputed facts also were present with respect to Plaintiff’s claims that Village officials conducted unlawful searches and entries onto its property.

However, the court dismissed most of Plaintiff’s equal protection claims, as it had already found no basis for the equal terms claims under RLUIPA and had already found no discriminatory enforcement in an earlier stage of the case.  However, there was insufficient evidence that anti-religious discrimination was a motivating factor in the adoption of the POW ordinance.  There was also no direct evidence of anti-religious sentiment or motivation provided to the court.

As to immunity, legislative immunity applied to adoption of the POW ordinance, but qualified immunity as to the other actions of the Village or its officials must await the determination of whether Plaintiff’s civil rights were violated.  Finally, as to damages, the court found no basis for damages under RLUIPA and thus struck those claims on the basis of its view of Second Circuit case law.  The case was then ordered to proceed to trial consistent with the foregoing.

This lengthy decision contains a thoughtful analysis of RLUIPA and the constitution as it applies to land use regulations and should be read by practitioners in the municipal law and civil rights fields.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre v. Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, 2015 WL 5178126 (EDNY)

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