WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The federal government has accused a village of religious discrimination for denying a zoning variance for a residence used by Orthodox Jews visiting a local hospital on the Sabbath and other holy days.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 26 in White Plains, the government said that in denying the variance for a Shabbos House, the Rockland County village of Suffern was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. It requested an injunction against enforcement of any village law that would burden the group’s religious practice.
“This lawsuit enforces Congress’ determination that local zoning regulations must give way when they unlawfully burden religious exercise,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia.
A village attorney, Terry Rice, said that while he had not seen the lawsuit, the agency that requested the variance “did not claim it was a religious use.”
“The zoning board applied New York state law and had no choice but to deny” the variance, he said.
The lawsuit says that from 1988 to 2004, Bikur Cholim Inc., an Orthodox Jewish service agency, provided meals and lodging for Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath and other holy days in a Shabbos House on the grounds of Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, about 40 miles north of midtown Manhattan. That allowed followers who wanted to visit or transport patients to avoid driving to or from the hospital on the Sabbath.
Believers would drive to the Shabbos House on Friday, before the Sabbath began at sundown, and then could walk to the hospital during the Sabbath and drive home afterward. The closest hotel is 3 ½ miles away, Bikur Cholim lawyer Paul Savad said.
The Shabbos House also helped residents comply with other Sabbath prohibitions. For example, lights were on timers or left on throughout the Sabbath so the Orthodox would not have to use electric switches. The housing is free, so there is no money to be handled.
In 2004, when Good Samaritan expanded, the Shabbos House moved across the street from the hospital, into a newly built house in an area zoned for single-family homes. The village denied a building permit and a zoning variance that would have allowed use of the house by up to 14 people, the lawsuit says.
Savad, who represents Bikur Cholim in its own lawsuit against Suffern, said that under the RLUIPA, when a zoning variance is requested for the practice of religion, the municipality must show a compelling reason not to grant it. He said because the Shabbos House is on the fringe of a residential area and all cars would be parked at the hospital, the village had no good reason not to grant the variance.
“It’s the same as if a couple had 12 people over for dinner and they stayed the night,” he said.
He also said that Good Samaritan, a Catholic hospital, supports the Shabbos House.
Rice said it has not been established that such a “hotel-type” use is a religious use, but Savad said visiting the sick is a strongly held religious practice for Orthodox Jews and prayers and services are conducted on the Sabbath at the residence.
Despite the zoning decision, the Shabbos House is still operating pending court decisions.
The government has invoked the RLUIPA in at least two other lawsuits in the region, supporting a Jewish school’s new 44,000-square-foot building in Mamaroneck and a Hasidic boarding school in Airmont.