Land wars

Religion | The Supreme Court may need to decide whether a federal law designed to protect religious freedom will do so

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

MAMARONECK, N.Y.- When Debbie Briks teaches her first-grade class at Westchester Day School about healthy eating, she also teaches them the Jewish prayers for every food group. When she tells the Thanksgiving story, she relates it to the Jewish value of sharing. She reminds unruly kids of mitzvot, the Jewish rules for good behavior. When she found a mistake in a math book, she quizzed her class on the infallibility of the Torah, asking, "What is the only book that was written without a mistake?"

The "integration of faith and learning" emphasized at some Christian schools is on display at this Orthodox Jewish school set on 26 wooded acres northeast of New York City. But beach and tennis clubs border the school, and Mamaroneck's zoning board has refused to let the school construct a new classroom building. On Oct. 17 the 2nd United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the zoning board's refusal displayed "an arbitrary blindness to the facts"-and that ruling may clear a path for not only Jewish schools but Christian ones as well to stand up against political attempts to stifle their growth or close them down entirely.

WORLD visited Westchester Day School and also analyzed the battles of Dominion Leadership Academy in Michigan and Redwood Christian Schools in California. A legal victory for those three schools will powerfully influence opportunities for religious education throughout the United States.

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Westchester students begin each day with prayer in the school's synagogue. In nursery school, the children listen to Bible stories, learn the Jewish holidays, and celebrate the Sabbath meal in a classroom decorated with Hebrew words and symbols. The older students divide their day between Hebrew and English subjects, studying the Hebrew language, the Laws, and the Prophets.

The school, though, has run out of room. After a fire gutted one school building, students had to move to temporary classrooms while the school rebuilt. Alisa Mannis, a parent and co-president of the school board, said, "We are using every nook, every cranny, every closet. In terms of classroom space, we're at capacity."

Westchester's solution is a 44,000-square-foot building that would provide a multipurpose room and 25 new classrooms. The zoning board said no after some neighbors complained that the school didn't have enough parking spaces and would increase traffic and noise. Westchester offered to shrink the building size and cap enrollment, but the zoning board and its lawyers refused a compromise.

In 2002, the school sued Mamaroneck village for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)-a 2000 federal law that protects the religious freedom of prisoners and prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise. RLUIPA requires governments to employ the least restrictive means when furthering a compelling government interest.

Stanley Bernstein, Westchester's executive vice president and legal counsel, said the board "never demonstrated that there'd be any negative impact building a building on 26 acres to connect existing buildings. They were at most trivial annoyances, but the court [of appeals] found that they weren't even those." The school blamed the board's refusal on "influential community opposition" to the school and "the machinations of local politics." Bernstein said, "I think that because we were a religious institution, they thought we wouldn't fight back."

Since litigation began, the school's enrollment has shrunk from 486 in 2001 to 385 this year, but the school wants to get it up to 500 again. Westchester Day School is the only modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Westchester County, and Mannis said litigation has "handcuffed" the school in its effort to provide religious education.

Lori Windham, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argues that religious organizations experience "frequent discrimination and serious problems" as zoning boards employ "very vague, arbitrary standards" to deny land use permits. Zoning boards sometimes target religious minorities, often prefer businesses to churches, and discriminate against private schools since they can decrease public-school funding.

Dominion Leadership Academy is the second school Becket is representing in RLUIPA litigation. Dominion began in 2000 when Okemos Christian Center started it on a six-acre plot of land in Lansing, Mich. About 125 families showed up for introductory meetings and 16 students enrolled. Classes commenced in a small building next to the church, and Meridian Township granted the church permission to build a building large enough for 200 students.

Then a new township board won the election and revoked permission. Craig Dumont, pastor of Okemos Christian Center, said the no-growth board claimed that the church was bringing too much "intensity" to the area-a term Dumont said the township never clearly defined since the church was "right dead square in the middle" of an area filled with new school buildings, and the township allowed the construction of 1,000 new homes a mile away from the church.


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