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RLUIPA case in SDNY challenges alleged discrimination against Orthodox Jewish community

In December 2020, the Southern District of New York filed a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) against the Village of Airmont. The suit alleges that the Village has been discriminating against the Orthodox Jewish community via its recent zoning regulations enacted in 2018. RLUIPA was signed into law in 2000 after nation-wide complaints that zoning regulations were burdening religious communities and preventing them from exercising their faiths.

The RLUIPA’s intent is to protect the religious rights of individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from overly burdensome or discriminatory zoning and land use regulations. In a RLUIPA case, the proponent of the claim must show that the land use or zoning restriction “substantially burdens” the religious exercise of a person or institution. If the person or entity bringing the claim can prove this burden exists, the state or local governmental entity must show that it has a “compelling interest” for imposing the restriction and that the restriction is the “least restrictive means” to accomplish that interest.

As alleged in the lawsuit by the Southern District of New York, there are three main issues with the zoning code provisions that are unduly burdensome to the Orthodox Jewish community. First, the zoning ordinances limit the number of residential homes that can be used as a Residential Place of Worship, which was previously allowed in all zones. Second, the code reportedly restricts whom individuals may invite into their own homes to pray. Lastly, the suit alleges that burdensome, unfair application processes have led to unfair results for Orthodox Jewish individuals applying for permits to make alterations to their homes for religious uses.

The suit alleges that these provisions serve no legitimate government purpose and that they function only to discriminate against the Orthodox Jewish community. In March 2021, the Village consented to the court issuing an injunction. Notably, this preliminary injunction orders the Village to reinstall both Residential Places of Worship as a land use category permitted use as of right in all residential districts and zoning provisions protecting the right to residential worship pending the final decision in the lawsuit.

You can read more about RLUIPA here.

You can read more about the active RLUIPA case in the Souther District of New York here.

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