This letter was written to the Journal News (printed on March 19, 2005) in response to a letter submitted earlier this month by Phil Tisi, assistant to Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence. The writer, Doris F. Ulman, is Village Attorney in Chestnut Ridge and Pomona.
NEW LAW MISINTERPRETED
"I have known recent letter-writer Phil Tisi for many years and have always respected him for his intelligence and dedication to public service. But his Community View, "The 'dilemma' caused by RLUIPA," is 100 percent factually and legally incorrect.
The "dilemma" is not whether RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) is unconstitutional but rather why the Town of Ramapo has misused this law and has blamed RLUIPA for the Town Board's zoning decision that permits high-density, multi-family housing projects in the middle of single-family residential neighborhoods.
In general terms, RLUIPA prohibits a municipality from implementing a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person or institution unless there is a compelling governmental interest to do so and the regulation is implemented in the least-restrictive manner.
The Town Board adopted the Adult Housing Law in June 2004. By stating that they had to adopt the law because of RLUIPA, the Town of Ramapo appears to be saying that housing is a religious use of land when everyone else knows that the construction of housing is a commercial endeavor.
In a joint statement issued by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, co-sponsors of RLUIPA in the U.S. Senate, the senators made it clear that "not every activity carried out by a religious entity or individual constitutes 'religious exercise'... For example, a burden on a commercial building, which is connected to religious exercise primarily by the fact that proceeds from the building's operation would be used to support religious exercise, is not a substantial burden on 'religious exercise.' "
The villages that have brought legal action against the Town of Ramapo challenging the Adult Student Housing local law are not claiming that RLUIPA is unconstitutional. What they do say is that RLUIPA does not apply; that housing developments are not protected uses under RLUIPA; that the town has acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in adopting this legislation' and that any housing developments approved pursuant to the Adult Student Housing Law are illegal.
It is not the purpose of this letter to allege that towns and villages should not give special consideration to valid religious uses during the planning and zoning process. On the contrary, for the past 20 years New York state courts have required that towns and villages give "special status" to houses or worship and schools with respect to zoning regulations. But no court, federal or state, has told us that zoning laws do not apply to these uses.
Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that a state or local government must "pursue a course of neutrality toward religion, favoring neither one religion over others nor religious adherents collectively over non-adherents."
We urge the Town of Ramapo to follow the court's admonition."