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.
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