WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — A federal judge has upheld the controversial Religious
Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, holding that the Village of
Mamaroneck's zoning laws cannot be used to block a Jewish school's new
Judge William Conner, who has handled the case since 2002 and held a trial in
November, found in a decision made public on March 3 that the village zoning
board must approve an application from the Westchester Day School for
construction on its property in Mamaroneck's upscale Orienta Point
Conner said the denial "was so contrary to the evidence and to the equities
as to be arbitrary and capricious." He said the federal law - often called
RLUIPA - was violated because the school proved that the village's action
"substantially burdened its religious exercise" and the village failed to prove
that it had no other remedy for problems it alleged would accompany the
The board had raised issues of traffic, parking, esthetics and property
values in battling the application from the 400-student school, but the judge
said the concerns were insufficient.
However, Conner stayed his order pending an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, acknowledging that there have been different interpretations
on the scope of the law. The law restricts local governments' power to block the
expansion of religious institutions.
Kevin Plunkett, Mamaroneck's attorney in the case, said the judge's
suggestion of an appeal made the ruling "a veiled victory for the village,"
though he expressed disappointment with the bottom line. He said he was
recommending an appeal and the village's "initial reaction is to appeal."
However, the school's attorney, Joel Haims, said the decision was "a complete
victory for the Westchester Day School."
The land-use act "was enacted to protect situations just such as this, where
the school has been there for 55 years and never had any complaints from its
neighbors," he said.
Lawyers for both sides said the case could reach the Supreme Court and is
being watched around the country. The federal government is currently suing the
Rockland County village of Airmont, alleging that its ban on boarding schools
violates the religious freedom of Hasidic Jews.
Plunkett said Conner "is pretty much saying that any religious school is
exempt from zoning and we contend that cannot be the case."
Mamaroneck is about 20 miles north of New York City.