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Faith Temple Church v. Town of Brighton

December 19, 2005

FAITH TEMPLE CHURCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWN OF BRIGHTON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Faith Temple Church ("Faith Temple"), commenced this action against the Town of Brighton, New York ("the Town") and certain Town officials, seeking to enjoin the Town from obtaining a certain parcel of land in Brighton through eminent domain. Faith Templealleges that defendants' actions have violated its rights under the United States and New York State Constitutions, as well as under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claims under RLUIPA. The motion is granted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Faith Temple is a religious congregation, which currently owns a church and related buildings on Elmwood Avenue in Brighton. Faith Temple contends that its Elmwood Avenue property is no longer large enough to meet the needs of its growing congregation, and that it needs a larger site on which to build a new church "campus" containing a church building and auditorium, senior housing, a school, and other facilities for "faith-based" programs.

To accomplish that goal, Faith Temple began negotiating sometime in 2003 with Alan Groos to buy a 66-acre parcel of land owned by Groos ("the Groos parcel") on Westfall Road in Brighton, which is located a few miles from its present site. The Groos parcel is immediately east of a 49-acre parcel of parkland ("the Park") owned by the Town.

In its Comprehensive Plan, however, as updated in 2000, the Town had recommended acquiring the Groos parcel in order to permit expansion of the Park. The Town had also engaged in some discussions with Groos concerning the Town's desire to purchase the parcel from Groos, but the Town and Groos were unable to agree on a price.

In January 2004, Faith Temple announced that it had executed a purchase contract for the Groos parcel. The Town, which claims to have been surprised by Faith Temple's action, announced on April 13, 2004 its intention to condemn the Groos parcel and annex it to the Park. Shortly thereafter, the Town commenced condemnation proceedings concerning the parcel pursuant to New York's Eminent Domain Procedure Law ("EDPL").

Faith Temple--which claims that it was surprised and dismayed by the Town's decision to condemn the parcel--brought this action on July 30, 2004.*fn1 Faith Temple asserts nine causes of action, six of which are based on alleged violations of the United States and New York State Constitutions, and three of which allege violations of RLUIPA. Faith Temple seeks a number of forms of relief, but primarily it seeks an injunction barring the Town from pursuing any eminent domain proceedings concerning the Groos parcel.

In addition, Faith Temple commenced a proceeding under EDPL § 207 in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court to review the Town's determination to condemn the Groos parcel. On April 29, 2005, the Appellate Division issued a Memorandum and Order confirming the Town's determination, and dismissing Faith Temple's petition. The Appellate Division found, inter alia, that Faith Temple "ha[d] failed to sustain its burden of establishing that the determination was without foundation and baseless," and "ha[d] not demonstrated that the manner in which [the Town] proceeded was in bad faith." Faith Temple Church v. Town of Brighton, 17 A.D.3d 1072, 1073 (4th Dep't 2005) (internal quotes omitted). No attempt was made to appeal that decision.

In so ruling, the state court also held that it lacked "authority under the EDPL to consider [Faith Temple's] causes of action under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ... ." Id. Pursuant to its authority under EDPL § 207(C)(1) to review whether "the [eminent domain] proceeding was in conformity with the federal and state constitutions," however, the court also "review[ed] the record to determine whether the proceeding conforms with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution" and its counterpart in the New York State Constitution. Id. at 1074. The court concluded that Faith Temple ha[d] failed to demonstrate ... that the proposed condemnation violates the Free Exercise Clause or its New York counterpart. The application of a statute such as the EDPL, an otherwise valid, neutral, and generally applicable law, does not ordinarily violate the Free Exercise Clause. Generally, a law that is neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling government interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice. Here, the record demonstrates that the Town's actions are neutral and generally applicable, and [Faith Temple] has failed to demonstrate that the proposed condemnation imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of religion. Id. (internal quotes and citations omitted).

At this point, then, the eminent domain proceedings remain pending, although--aside from the Appellate Division's decision--it does not appear that any significant steps have been taken to advance those proceedings. In addition, in April 2005, Faith Temple informed the Court of its intention to close on the Groos parcel, and apparently that has occurred, so that Faith Temple now holds actual title to the property.

DISCUSSION

I. RLUIPA--Background and General Principles

In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Or. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment--which provides that "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]"--does not inhibit enforcement of otherwise valid laws of general application that incidentally burden religious conduct. Id. at 878-882. Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000bb et seq. RFRA prohibited governments from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government can ...


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