RLUIPA, The Documentary
10/25/11
Staff Writer
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A decade after landmark federal legislation limited municipalities’ power to prevent religious institutions from building or expanding in their areas, zoning controversies continue to surface in the Jewish community.

Mamaroneck’s unsuccessful attempt to keep the Westchester Day School from adding an extension to its building. An ongoing dispute in Hartford, Conn., over a Chabad House near the University of Hartford. Various challenges to synagogues and yeshivot in Rockland County’s haredi village of Monsey.

And, last week, a new documentary brought refocused public attention on the zoning issues raised by the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which stated that a government cannot impose “a standard burden” on a religious institution unless officials can prove “a compelling government interest.” The law made it easier for the building of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings.

The documentary, “America’s Holy War,” produced by New York filmmaker Anne MacGregor, who now lives in London, premiered Sunday at the Lafayette Theater in Suffern, a Rockland County community near the site of several zoning cases featured in the production. Among them: a synagogue’s plans to build a school and dormitory in the village of Airmont and an effort to open a house for Sabbath-observant families near Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern.

The documentary isn’t only about Ramapo, MacGregor said. “This is a story about RLUIPA and its impact on communities across the country.” She is familiar with Rockland, because her family spent several summers there. “There was a cluster of RLUIPA lawsuits in Rockland. For the sake of making the film as economically as possible, I concentrated on cases in this community to find examples of aspects of the law.”

Her documentary includes interviews with experts on both sides of the divide, including Roman Storzer, an attorney who often represents religious groups, and Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School who is a critic of RLUIPA.

“Congress enacted RLUIPA out of ignorance, and the main thrust of the documentary is that Congress needs to reconsider it … it has been a major source of strife in cities and towns,” Hamilton told The Jewish Week.

“Many citizens who have been negatively affected by RLUIPA find the documentary a breath of fresh air,” Hamilton said. The documentary “shows all of the facets

of the problem posed when a religious developer uses RLUIPA to overcome zoning and land use laws … [putting] neighbors at a severe disadvantage and demot[ing] interests in open space and the rural character of a community.”

RLUIPA is “not a carte blanche” for religious institutions to build wherever and however they wish, said Marc Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s associate legal counsel, but the legislation has forced officials to present and prove substantial objections.

“America’s Holy War” is the latest sign that religious challenges to zoning laws are continuing.

“By no means is it a dead issue,” Stern said.

Last Update:

10/27/2011 - 18:07

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The documentary was excellent in explaining the core issues. One of the key arguments is that the constitution covers the rights of religious organizations and that RLUIPA is unnecessary which I happen to agree with. The other key argument is that one of the key facets of RLUIPA is that the costs of a the organization bringing the lawsuit is borne by the defendent which is meant to help small organizations battle large municipalities. The problem has been that it has turned the threat of the RLUIPA lawsuit into a serious blackmail technique that causes small municipalities who really don't have money for lawsuits to capitulate to large developers.

I have personally heard St. Lawrence explain that the controversial 2010 down zoning of the Patrick Farm was in reaction to threats from the Hasidic community that if they didn't get the down zoning that they would come back with plans for religious based development and would invoke RLUIPA. While I may not believe that CSL is trustworthy overall, his explanation of the conversations and threats he presented rang true and it is supportive of the points raised in this documentary.

Overall the documentary is excellent in explaining the background issues of the problems caused by this law and makes a good point for revisiting it as originally promised.

It is imperative that the jewish community support the repeal of RLUIPA because its misuse is triggering anti-jewish sentiment. In the Town of Ramapo which is featured in the movie the Hasedic population has been the primary group taking advantage of RLUIPA and the distress of the community at large is causing them to cast dispersions at all orthodox jewish people because they don't understand the distinctions and don't appreciate that much of the jewish community in rockland treasures the rural character as much as they do.

Many orthodox in the community are just as distressed by the overdevelopment in the Town of Ramapo and liken it to becoming another Brooklyn. They should be more active in pushing for the repeal of RLUIPA and supporting local grassroots organizations like ROSA 4 Rockland who is attempting to mitigate the development at the Patrick Farm.

There is room for improvement in the documentary and there are few areas that I thought could have been expanded on (and a few scenes lost) but overall it was an excellent attempt (especially considering the limited budget) at covering the issue and should be seen by everyone - especially those living in Rockland County.

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