An evangelical church, Life Covenant Church a/k/a LifeChurch.tv (“LifeChurch”), is suing Colonie, New York (“Town”), the Town’s Planning Board, certain of its members, and the Town’s attorneys over allegations that the Town’s failure to issue certain land use approvals is religious discrimination in violation of RLUIPA and the state and federal constitutions. Presently, LifeChurch has a house of worship in Town, located at 560 Sand Creek Road, consisting of a 10,000 square foot facility, 180 seats for its members, four classrooms for Sunday school classes, and an associated parking lot with 82 parking spaces. LifeChurch claims that its membership has been “rapidly growing, more than doubling in the past five years, and its attendance requirements exceed the capacity of its current facility.” According to LifeChurch, the “inadequacies of the current facility have prevented LifeChurch from performing tasks that it believes are mandated by God, including expanding LifeChurch’s membership and discipling to more members about the Christian faith.”
To better accommodate its religious needs, LifeChurch paid $1.78 million for a 25-acre site in Town to construct a new 36,601 square foot facility for worship services, 8 religious education and training rooms, and 457 parking spaces. According to the complaint, LifeChurch applied for and obtained an area variance from the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, but has been delayed in obtaining other required approvals:
“LifeChurch’s zoning requests have been lost in a bureaucratic maze as the Town and Town Officials have routinely made conflicting requests and continued to unnecessarily delay in requesting and reviewing materials prior to the Planning Board’s consideration of LifeChurch’s zoning requests. LifeChurch has reasonably responded to the Town’s requests. However, it is clear based upon the Town’s and Town Officials’ actions and unreasonable delays that any additional attempts to accommodate the Town’s and Town Officials’ requests would be futile and LifeChurch’s zoning requests have been and will continue to be improperly delayed so as to effectively be denied.”
After refusing to hear its two prior applications for Open Development Area (“ODA”) approval to use an easement over a private road for ingress and egress, LifeChurch alleges the Town again informed it that it would have to submit another such application. By letter dated December 8, 2014, the Town’s outside engineer stated that he would recommend ODA approval subject to certain conditions, including limits on the length of services, their frequency, and a minimum requirement that service times be 2 hours apart from start to start. According to the complaint “[w]hen Town Officials were informed that the proposed conditions were not acceptable to LifeChurch, LifeChurch was told that it would not be placed upon the December 16, 2014 agenda without accepting the conditions set out by the Town’s outside engineer.” LifeChurch continued to refuse to accept the conditions and the Town refused to place the ODA application on its meeting agenda.
LifeChurch sued, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s substantial burden, nondiscrimination, equal terms, and unreasonable limits provisions, and asserts a host of claims under the U.S. and New York constitutions. The case is captioned Life Covenant Church, Inc. v. Town of Colonie, No. 1:14-CV-1530 (LEK/RFT) (N.D.N.Y. 2014).
Town Attorney Michael Maggiulli, a named defendant, stated: “We indicated to them the project was most likely going to be approved” and that the Town had put the Church “through their paces” during the review process. He added: “They’re already in the community for one thing. I don’t know how we would be discriminating against a religious group that’s already here. It seems to me they’re reading the federal law like we simply had to just rubber stamp any project that a religious group proposed in the community and that’s just not true.”
*Special thanks to Dean Patricia Salkin at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center for the scoop.