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Friday, October 19, 2007

Jewish School wins landmark court battle

In Test of Religious Protections, Court Sides With Jewish School in New York

In a decision watched closely by religious rights groups and municipal officials, a federal court has ruled in favor of an Orthodox Jewish religious school that fought for five years with the village of Mamaroneck, N.Y., over its right to construct a new school building.

The case was seen as an important test of a 2000 federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which extends broad protections to religious groups that claim their exercise of faith is “substantially burdened” by government land-use regulations. The law also extends similar protections to prison inmates.

In its ruling yesterday, the three-judge federal panel said the Zoning Board of Appeals of the affluent Westchester County village exhibited “an arbitrary blindness to the facts” in 2002 when it denied an application by the Orthodox school, the Westchester Day School,[Map] to build a new, 20-room school building.

Religious groups have embraced the Religious Land Use law as a bulwark against what they see as the meddling of government bureaucracies, while opponents see it as giving too much power to religious groups in deciding how the local landscape evolves.

While various court decisions since 2001 have come down on different sides of that balance of power, yesterday’s decision in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was viewed as a clear victory for the religious side.

“This will shift the balance of power between houses of worship and bureaucrats who until now have wielded unreviewable authority,” said Derek Gaubatz, a lawyer who submitted a brief in support of the Orthodox school on behalf of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington religious rights group. “This gives a real boost to the cause of religious liberty.”

The United States Justice Department and several other religious organizations also filed briefs in support of the school’s suit, and in defense of the 2000 law.

Kevin Plunkett, the lawyer representing the village of Mamaroneck, said village officials had not decided yet whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Of course, we are disappointed,” he said, “but it’s been apparent from the start that the constitutional issues raised by this case are issues that need to be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court. In our view, this continues to be a serious First Amendment issue needing resolution.”

The new structure in Mamaroneck was to be the fifth building on a 25-acre campus where 450 students attend both religious and academic classes in preschool through eighth grade. School administrators said they had outgrown their space and would lose enrollment unless they could expand.

Residents in the area complained that the new building would add to already-congested traffic. The Zoning Board of Appeals cited the neighbors’ concerns, and what the board said was inadequate space for parking, as reasons for denying the application. Neither community members nor zoning board members could be reached for comment yesterday.

The school filed the suit in Federal District Court in 2002, citing the law. Its lawyers contended that the zoning board’s denial of the building application “substantially burdened” the practice of Orthodox Jewish faith because the new building was in its entirety a religious enterprise intended to teach the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, though both academic and religious classes would take place there.

The village’s lawyers cited several grounds, including the 10th Amendment’s protection of the rights of state and local government. But mainly they argued that the law violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government infringement or advancement of religion. The lower court ruled in favor of the school, and the village appealed.

Joel Haims, the lawyer representing the Westchester Day School pro bono throughout the five years of the case, said that for school officials the decision meant “vindication, but mainly a good outcome for the school and the kids.”

The court yesterday ordered the village zoning board to issue a permit for the new building. But Mr. Haims said there were still several layers of local review to undergo before construction began. “There is the planning board next, and then the building department has to review the plans, I think,” he said.

But Mr. Haims said he hoped the court decision would make those stages of the review process easier than the first one has been.

Mr Bagel: Joel Haims, the lawyer representing the Westchester Day School should be congratulated for his dedication and altruism. One hopes the battle is near over, but it seems there may be more issues yet, with the schools building plan.

Westchester Day School: Mission Statement


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