In a 206 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found the Town of Greenburgh had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it refused to grant a church permission to build a new building, for what the court termed “contrived” reasons. In Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, the Court found, contrary to the claim of the Town, that the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) constitutes an individualized assessment of a land use application, that the review falls within the RLUIPA definition of land use regulation as the application of SEQRA “can limit or restrict a claimant’s use or development of land” and that the actions of the Town in issuing findings pursuant to SEQRA, which limited the use of the Church’s property, constitute a “substantial burden” on religious exercise under RLUIPA.
The Court was no doubt brought to this conclusion in large part by its finding that the “majority” of the Town’s witnesses were lacking in credibility. The Court went so far as to find “not only the admitted destruction of probative evidence, but the existence of evidence relevant to the issues before this Court that Defendants never produced to Plaintiffs. Outrageously, Defendants attempted to enter such previously undisclosed documents into evidence during trial.” The Court therefore held “that the conduct of Defendants warrants both an adverse inference based on spoliation of evidence and sanctions.”
The Court reviewed the history of RLUIPA and its purpose to “protect against inter alia ‘subtle forms of discrimination.'” It then went on to note that under RLUIPA, once a plaintiff demonstrates that conduct in implementing a land use regulation imposes a substantial burden upon religious exercise, the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate that the burden imposed is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The Court found that the activities at issue fall within the jurisdiction of RLUIPA noting that a number of courts have held that construction of a church implicates interstate commerce. It further found that since the activities of the church will support missionary efforts that too implicate interstate and international commerce.