Saturday, March 04, 2006

Westchester Day-School wins case

TJN: A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Jewish day school's right to expand its campus in Mamaroneck, trumping the village's zoning board and upholding the constitutionality of a controversial law on religious land use. Now, village officials must decide whether to appeal what on the surface may seem like a typical suburban zoning battle. Lawyers for the Westchester Day School, a yeshiva for more than 400 students on tony Orienta Point, were the first in the Southern District of New York to successfully seek protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law, enacted during President Clinton's administration, makes it difficult for municipalities to deny the expansion of religious institutions. "This is a complete victory for the Westchester Day School," said Joel Haimes, attorney at Morrison and Forester LLP. In 2001, the day school sought permission to build a 44,000-square-foot building on its 26 acres that would house classrooms and small rooms for meetings and prayers. The case landed in U.S. District Court in White Plains after village hearings, approvals, neighborhood objections, denials, court appeals and settlement attempts. It could be one of the first cases of its kind to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, should the federal Court of Appeals uphold the decision issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge William Connor. Connor concluded that the zoning board's denial of a special permit "substantially burdened" the school's religious exercise without proving "a compelling government interest," such as a threat to public safety.
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