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Greenburgh Violated Church's Rights, Court Upholds

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a decision that found the town of Greenburgh violated Fortress Bible Church's constitutional rights.

The decision issued Monday affirms U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Robinson's ruling on Aug. 12 that the town impermissibly prevented the church from building a new place of worship and school on Pomander Drive.

"We feel that it's a just decision," the church's pastor Rev. Dennis Karaman said. "Being able to build a new facility will be beneficial to our church's growth."

In a unanimous three-judge panel decision, Judge John Walker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit wrote that the Town Board violated the church's rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

Fortress Bible bought a 6.5-acre parcel of land on Pomander Drive in 1998 and sent a proposal to build a new facility, to which the town put through an environmental review process. 

The town continued to resist the project over the following years, first stating zoning and traffic issues and finally issuing a State Environmental Quality Review Act in July 2000 when Town Planning Commissioner Anthony Russo said the church mitigated those traffic concerns.

In a July 2000 meeting, Town Supervisor Paul Feiner said he was concerned with the church's tax-exempt status and asked it to donate a fire truck or make some other payment in lieu of taxes, Walker wrote.

After the series of contentious administrative proceedings preventing the Church's project from moving forward, Walker wrote, the church sued Greenburgh, the Town Board and several board members.

"In no sense do we believe that ordinary environmental review considerations are subject to RLUIPA," Walker wrote in the ruling, adding that Greenburgh council members "disingenuously used SEQRA to obstruct and ultimately deny the Church's project."

Fortress Bible Church is a Pentecostal church in Mount Vernon, where the current facility is only able to hold approximately 175 members. The proposed Pomander Drive property would accommodate 500 people and a school of 150 students.

Feiner said he's disappointed about the outcome of the appeal, adding that the federal law should be changed to give local governments more power over the community's zoning laws. 

"It was a legitimate traffic safety concern because of site distance and traffic flow," Feiner said. "We did not articulate effectively why we did what we did. We're not against the church, not against the synagogues, we're just against its location."

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