Monday, September 27, 2004

RLUIPA Appeal. A Jewish day school in Westchester brought an action against the village in which it was located, attempting to force the village to grant its application for modification of its special permit to allow consturction of an additional school building, along with renovations and improvements to the existing facilities. The village had denied the application for a number of reasons, including (1) the potential for increased intensity of use due to increased enrollment at the school, (2) traffic concerns relating to increased volume and the effect on nearby intersections and (3) insufficient provision for parking. The district court granted summary judgment to the school, holding that it was entitled to an immediate and unconditional approval of its application under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

RLUIPA prohibts a governmental entitiy from apply a land use regulation "in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person . . . or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and . . . [the burden imposed] is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." The use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise is considered religious exercise under the Act.

The district court had based its decision on the finding that the village's act was a complete denial of the application. The Second Circuit disagreed, stated that it did not see how the resolution "supports, much less compels, the conclusion that the [village's] ruling was a 'complete' rejection -- one which foreclosed consideration of a modified plan." While the Second Circuit noted that the District Court's "assessment of the complete definitve nature of the [village's] ruling may well be correct," it held that "upon a grant of summary judgment, it makes no difference what the court believes the facts to ve. The judgment may not properly be granted (or upheld on appeal) unless the record compels each finding of a fact necessary to the judgment." The Court held that the district court had given no explanation why it believed the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the village, compelled the conclusion that the rejection of the school's plan was a "complete" rejection.

The Court also stated -- I hesitate to say held because this appears to be a dictum -- that it did not believe that "any program of a religious school to improve its facilities in a manner that would improve the students' overall educational experience would be protected by RLUIPA from the implementation of a land use regulation." If such were the case, then a religious school would be entitled to benefits not available to a secular school, implicating First Amendment concerns. While the Court did not definitively rule on that issue, it commended such considerations to the District Court's attention on remand.

Finally, the Court disagreed with the District Court that traffic concerns can never constitute a compelling governmental interest and found that the District Court had improperly made factual findings in rejecting the village's expert reports submitted on the summary judgment motion.

The case was remanded for further proceedings. The decision in Westchester Day School v. Village of Mamaroneck can be found here. The case was decided on September 27, 2004.

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