“Even as local officials consider a hotly contested zoning law that would permit houses of worship in houses in residential neighborhoods, a coalition of ultra-Orthodox Jews filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Ramapo village.
The legal action – filed hours before Tuesday’s fourth public hearing on the proposed law – states the village’s five-acre minimum for a house of worship was “onerous” for religious freedom.
The lawsuit against Chestnut Ridge – similar in context to two legal actions launched recently against neighboring Airmont – was filed by the Orthodox Jewish Coalition of Chestnut Ridge. The other plaintiffs include Congregation Birchas Yitzchok, Congregation Dexter Park, Congregation Torah U’tfilla, Abraham Willner and Tzvi Miller.
They argue Chestnut Ridge has created “onerous zoning requirements” that essentially blocks houses of worship and leaves approval up to the discretion of the Board of Trustees, and village land-use boards.
The lawsuit contends the village zoning violates the civil rights of Orthodox Jews under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Freedom of Worship provision of the New York Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, known as RLUIPA.
“Specifically, the village’s land use regulations applicable to places of worship effectively prevent the members of the Orthodox Jewish community living in the Village of Chestnut Ridge … from operating and attending synagogues in order to engage in religious exercise within the village,” the lawsuit states.
The congregations state they are unable to find land for a synagogue that meets the regulations. The lawsuits says only 45 of the village’s 2,450 residential parcels are five acres or more.
Tuesday’s public hearing concerned a proposed law that would set three scenarios for houses of worship in the village, including home worship of up to 49 people.
Mayor Rosario “Sam” Presti, an attorney and former Planning Board member, said the village had not been officially served with the legal action.
“I’m disappointed the OJC et al felt they needed to file an action against the Village,” Presti said Thursday. “My hope is that the House of Worship Law we are considering addresses the allegations against the village as proof the village neither discriminates, nor is discriminatory, towards the ultra-Orthodox religious community.”
During the hearings, Presti argued the village was open to an RLUIPA lawsuit based on the five-acre minimum lot size. Courts have ruled municipalities cannot create regulations that choke efforts at religious practice and leniency toward religious groups was required.
The coalition and other plaintiffs are represented by Storzer & Associates, experts in RLUIPA and the Nanuet firm of Paul Savad and Joseph Churgin. Those lawyers successful won a federal RLUIPA case for the Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov against Pomona.
Airmont has been slapped with two civil rights lawsuits by a group of religious Jews and a yeshiva in November and December.
Unlike Chestnut Ridge, Airmont has a history of discrimination against Orthodox Jews dating to its 1990 incorporation. Airmont lost federal lawsuits, including action taken by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.
Chestnut Ridge officials have hosted four public hearings on the proposed house of worship law – more than 18 months in the making.
The village planners have proposed a three-tiered system:
- Residential houses of worship where a religious leader would live and could hold services for up to 49 people based on the local zoning code. The house would have to meet fire codes and get planning approvals.
- Neighborhood houses of worship without living areas that would require more parking and buffers, planning board and any zoning board variances. The allowable attendance would depend on the size of the house, but could top 100 people.
- Community worship houses on 5 acres, needing a special permit, planning and zoning approvals.
The most recent hearing came Tuesday night at the Chestnut Ridge Middle School.
Critics who spoke at the hearings claim the Orthodox Jewish Coalition drafted a law for officials and village planners worked on the proposal before officials went public.
“This law was born in sin,” said attorney Steven Mogel, who represents the grassroots group CUPON of Chestnut Ridge. “It was crafted at non-public meetings where only one religious group – the Orthodox Jewish Coalition – attended with the village’s engineering firm.”
Mogel said the OJC provided a draft law in August 2017. He said CUPON obtained vouchers from the village showing planners were paid for work on the law dating months before the public unveiling on Feb. 22, 2018.
Mogel and residents speaking at the hearings argued the village has never violated RLUIPA or discriminated. They argued the village should develop a comprehensive zoning plan – like Airmont and other communities – that sets criteria for development.
They also noted the village found the houses of worship would not have environmental impacts on traffic, water, neighborhood character, and other issues.
“The board made up its mind to pass this law before the general public knew,” Mogel said. “If this was not a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, I don’t know what is. This was a stunning violation of the public trust.”
Read the full text of the Journal News article here.