Federal Court Denies Village Summary Judgment on Catholic Diocese’s RLUIPA and First Amendment Claims Over Proposed Cemetery

While the ultimate outcome of the case summarized below remains to be seen, it emphasizes that litigation under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. ("RLUIPA") can be a powerful weapon for a religious cemetery faced with an obstructionist municipality.  While a municipality maintains the right to adopt reasonable zoning regulations under most circumstances, overstepping its bounds may lead to significant damages and an award of attorney's fees for violating the cemetery's rights under RLUIPA. 

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center ("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 Village Code did not permit the burial of human remains, so the Diocese applied for a zoning change. The application was denied in 1996 by the Board of Trustees of the Village ("Board") on the grounds it was a commercial operation. After the Diocese successfully litigated that the propsed cemetery was a religious use, the Board enacted a series of comprehensive zoning amendments, including a Places of Worship ("POW") Law.

After repeated delays in the approval process under the POW law, the Diocese filed suit alleging violations of the Constitution and RLUIPA. Several months later, the Board approved the proposal, subject to various restrictions including a requirement that approval was subject to renewal every 5 years, at which time the terms could be altered. The Court ruled on motions for summary judgment on September 3, 2015.

The Court found the POW Law was constitutional in that it validly regulated building area, height, setbacks from property lines, screening, and traffic circulation to mitigate the "adverse impacts of large institutional facilities on the residential nature of the Village." In addition, the law did not treat the plaintiffs differently from other religious institutions.

Next the Court addressed the RLUIPA claims that the POW law (1) created a substantial burden on the property's religious use, and (2) treated the plaintiff on "less than equal terms than a nonreligious assembly or institution." On the first claim, the Diocese argued the conditions were arbitrary and unreasonable, particularly the 5-year renewal provision, which undermined permanent burial. The Court found this claim was viable, but that whether the law was narrowly tailored was a matter for trial, thus denying summary judgment. For the second claim, RLUIPA requires the government to treat religious and non-religious institutions on "equal terms." However, the Second Circuit has ruled that different land use regimes can be legal, as different is not the same as unequal. Here, the court found the Diocese had failed to identify a comparable secular institution that was treated more favorably, and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the equal terms claim. 

The case is cited as 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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