Catholic Diocese’s RLUIPA and First Amendment Claims Over Proposed Cemetery Allowed to Proceed: Part 1, Introduction and State Litigation

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center, New York (“the Diocese”) has been in a protracted legal battle with the Village of Old Westbury  (“Village”) for nearly 20 years over its proposed cemetery. The facts underlying this legal battle begin in March 1995, when the Diocese purchased 97 acres of land to create the “Queen of Peace Cemetery.” As the Village Code did not permit the burial of human remains, the Diocese applied for a zoning change to allow development of the cemetery. A public hearing was held on November 30, 1995, and on March 18, 1996 the Board of Trustees of the Village (“Board”) denied the application on the grounds it was a commercial operation rather than a religious use.

After the application was denied, the Diocese filed suit on April 17, 1996 in the Supreme Court, Nassau County, against the Village and the Board challenging the decision and seeking a declaratory judgment that the proposed cemetery was in fact a religious use. The Supreme Court denied injunctive relief, but ultimately found the cemetery was a religious use. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed that the use was religious, but also found that a cemetery was a Type I action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and remanded the issue to the Board.

This is the first post in a series that will span the next two weeks. The next post in this series will look at the subsequent permitting process and environmental review.

The case is The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, v. The Incorporated Village Of Old Westbury, 2015 WL 5178126 (E.D.N.Y.)

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