RLUIPA: Intended as protection; used as weapon

 Community View in The Journal News
 By Warren Huberman
( February 8, 2007)

The proposal for a rabbinical college in Pomona appears to have served as the final straw for many Rocklanders in the debate regarding land development, and it is long overdue. However, in order to protect Ramapo and Rockland from improper development and overdevelopment, it is imperative that arguments focus squarely on the law that threatens it.

The debate is about a law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, that was designed specifically to create parity, but has instead been used specifically to allow for disparity.

There are two issues here. First, we must question why religion should be a basis for special protection with regards to land use. We must ask why religious groups should receive favor over other types of groups or over those who are not members of any group. Second, we must question the appropriateness of RLUIPA as a federal law that usurps the zoning laws of local communities. What does the federal government know about any individual community that justifies federal law being used to make decisions on such matters?

The intent of RLUIPA was to protect the rights of members of religious groups but, in fact, it actually favors the development of land by religious groups by providing them with special accommodation and an ability to override local zoning laws. RLUIPA, as it now stands, places the burden on those who already reside within a community to defend themselves against religious groups who wish to significantly alter or disregard the community. Clearly, this was not the intention of RLUIPA.

RLUIPA is a law and like any law it has no conscience. A law simply states what is allowed; not what should be allowed or what is morally correct or what is best for a community. In Rockland County, RLUIPA is not being used to protect people within a religious group; but instead to allow those within that group to do much of what they please with regard to land development. The attorneys for the proposed college do not speak about what is good for Pomona or what is right for Pomona, only what their client is allowed to do by law. It is shameless and disgraceful how RLUIPA is tossed about by developers and attorneys as a threat against local communities. The plan for the proposed college has absolutely no consideration for what is best for the current residents of Pomona or the impact on the environment; in fact it has no concern for Pomona at all. Pomona, and its residents, is merely an X on a map.

It is particularly important to take note of the fact that the parcel of land in Pomona was purchased with the full intention to develop it as a religious college. This is to say that there was a premeditated plan to purchase the land and then invoke RLUIPA in order to develop the land in a manner that is explicitly contrary to local zoning restrictions. This is not RLUIPA being used as protection; it is RLUIPA being used as a weapon by a religious group to develop land within an existing community exclusively for its own purpose. No secular college or university would attempt to purchase this land in this manner with plans to build, say, a new business school, because there is no law that would permit them to do so. So why are there laws that allow religious institutions to do so? The proposed college and its attorneys and all others who attempt to develop land under the protection of RLUIPA seem to say, "RLUIPA says I can do it and you can't stop me!" The residents of Pomona and of other towns and villages in Rockland must fight to preserve their communities and to change RLUIPA because RLUIPA as it now stands simply doesn't care about them, and neither do those who attempt to hide behind it in their efforts toward further development. Is this what lawmakers and President Bill Clinton had in mind?

The purpose of RLUIPA was to ensure equality. Equality means that there is no favor or special accommodation for any group when such favor or accommodation is used in a manner that discriminates against those outside of that group. RLUIPA in 2007 is not balancing the playing field; it is unjustly tilting it toward one side. Freedom and equality in matters of religion are so important in our country that it is the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights. The purpose was to protect the equal rights of all religious groups - as well as the rights of those who choose not to be part of any religious group.

The writer is a New City resident.