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Westchester Day Sch. v. Vill. of Mamaroneck - 504 F.3d 338 (2d Cir. 2007)

Rule:

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc et seq., prohibits the government from imposing or implementing a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc(a)(1). This provision applies only when the substantial burden imposed: (1) is in a program that receives federal financial assistance; (2) affects commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, or with Indian tribes; or (3) is imposed in the implementation of a land use regulation or system of land use regulations, under which a government makes, or has in place formal or informal procedures or practices that permit the government to make, individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc(a)(2).

Facts:

For decades, plaintiff Westchester Day School ("WDS" or the "school") operated an Orthodox Jewish co-educational day school with classes from pre-school to eighth grade. Believing it needed to expand by constructing a new school building and renovating existing buildings, WDS submitted construction plans to defendant Village of Mamaroneck ("Village") and an application for the required special permit. The Village zoning board denied the application. WDS then filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Village and others, seeking relief under: (1) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc et seq. ("RLUIPA"), alleging, inter alia, that defendants substantially burdened WDS's religious exercise by denying its application for a special permit, and; (2) the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C.S. § 1651, alleging, inter alia, that the denial of WDS's application was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by the evidence in the record. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for WDS. Defendants appealed.

Issue:

Did the denial of a permit to expand WDS' facilities unlawfully burden its exercise of religion?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court of appeals affirmed the district court's judgment. The court held that the denial of the permit imposed a substantial burden on WDS' exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest. The Village zoning board's action forced WSD to continue teaching in inadequate facilities, and the board's stated reasons for denying the permit were based on the board's speculation and its own errors of relevant facts concerning traffic and parking. Further, there were no available alternatives for the school's expanding needs, and the board arbitrarily denied the permit application in its entirety rather than conditioning permit approval upon remedial efforts by the school. Also, the board's general interest in enforcing zoning and safety laws was not a compelling interest that justified imposing the burden on the school's exercise of religion, and the board in fact acted out of undue deference to the opposition of a small group of neighbors of the school.

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