What happens when a town supervisor brazenly announces his intention to thwart a religious school’s zoning application? What happens when, inevitably, this reaches the court system?
Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland is facing this situation, with the upstate New York town of Clarkstown deliberately blocking its 2018 contract for purchase of facilities from a local church to build an Orthodox Jewish school.
The town was aided and abetted in its efforts by a group called ‘Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods of Greater Nanuet (CUPON)’.
In response, the New York-based Agudath Israel recently filed an amicus brief (“friend of the court”) in support of Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland’s lawsuit against the Town of Clarkstown and Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods of Greater Nanuet (CUPON).
Ateres faced organized opposition from town officials, Town Supervisor George Hoehmann, and members of the CUPON group.
At a public board meeting held shortly after Ateres entered into the agreement to buy the land, Town Supervisor George Hoehmann announced that “the Town would deploy every weapon in its arsenal to tank the transaction.”
Hoehmann followed through by organizing a public pressure campaign that resulted in Ateres’s public bond agency canceling their bond hearing, and by manufacturing regulatory delays that caused the bank to revoke their letter of commitment for funding the purchase. This caused the church to terminate the sale agreement before the Town of Clarkstown’s zoning ruling was ever issued. Following the deal falling apart, the Town of Clarkstown acquired the land, thereby permanently blocking the establishment of an Orthodox Jewish school at the site.
Following these events in 2020, Ateres filed a lawsuit against the Town of Clarkstown, George Hoehmann, and CUPON alleging religious discrimination.
The case was dismissed by the court because Ateres never received zoning approval before the deal was terminated.
Ateres is now appealing that ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the actions of Hoehmann and the town clearly caused the deal to be terminated.
In its amicus brief, Agudath Israel of America argues that the Town of Clarkstown’s actions against Ateres violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects religious institutions from discriminatory land-use regulations.
The brief states, “throughout the property purchase process, the officials of Clarkstown, in collaboration with local citizen activists, stoked hostility toward the school, describing their efforts to buy the building as a ‘hostile invasion’.
“The defendants blocked Ateres from closing on the property and prevented it from entering their community by obstructing the zoning application process, withholding the necessary regulatory permissions; deterring investors from financing the purchase, purchasing the property for itself; and initiating the process to amend the zoning laws to make it impossible for Ateres and religious organizations like it to move in.
“Clarkstown officials trapped Ateres in administrative purgatory, exhausting the school’s resolve and recourses, until it was forced to abandon the agreement and sell the property to the Town itself.”
The brief also warns that “This precedent risks suggesting to other municipalities’ officials that they can ultimately succeed in discriminating against Orthodox Jews if they impose excessive delays or unduly burdensome requirements that effectively bury the contract, property or opportunity that is rightfully theirs.”
Agudath Israel has supported the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) since it was first proposed as law, and has vigorously defended religious rights of institutions under its provisions for the last two decades.
This is the third such RLUIPA filing Agudath Israel has produced in the last month alone, and is the latest in the Agudah’s fight against institutionalized antisemitism.
“We needed to support the Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy in its fight against religious discrimination,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America.
“RLUIPA is a crucial law that protects the rights of religious institutions to use their property in accordance with their beliefs. We will continue to defend RLUIPA and the rights of religious institutions to operate freely and without discrimination.”