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.
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.
Susan McGillicuddy, town supervisor, said the town granted the church permission to build up to 25,000 square feet: "We did not allow them to build larger than 25,000, which would suit their needs since they only had 15 students." Dumont said the board knew that granting so little space would shut the school down: "They knew when they did it that it would be an impossible project for us." The church tried to forge an acceptable compromise: Restrict the number of students to 125, change hours of operation, give up athletic fields, and promise to pay for a deceleration lane to minimize traffic.
The church met every code stipulation, but Dumont said the township's answer remained the same: "You can have a school, but you can't have a building for your school." The board, according to Dumont, "created a brand-new standard that had never been applied to anyone before and has never been applied to anyone since, except for us."
Okemos Christian Center filed a lawsuit against the Meridian Township Board in 2004, claiming the board violated RLUIPA. In August 2005, the court ruled in the church's favor. The township appealed the case in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and has been awaiting a decision for the past 14 months.
Meanwhile, Dumont said, "All of our support evaporated." Dumont recalls returning a $200,000 donation because it didn't seem ethical to accept money when the school might close, and eventually both the school and the daycare closed. Now the church is trying to buy another school, since Dumont calls education "the passion of our church . . . probably the most significant ministry and the most important ministry that we're called to do."
Redwood Christian Schools also has Becket Fund representation. For 20 years, the school has been leasing empty public-school buildings from the San Lorenzo Unified School District (SLUSD), but the SLUSD has twice evicted Redwood from the buildings-once in 1985 and again in 1996.
In 1997, Redwood bought an empty 12.5 acre lot to build a junior-senior high school. The lot is still empty. First neighbors complained that the plot was too small, so Redwood bought another 32.5 acres, spending $3 million for the land and $1 million to prepare it for development. Redwood completed a 2,000-page environmental impact report, but then Alameda County denied the school a conditional use permit, saying the project was too big for the semi-rural area.
Redwood filed suit in 2001. Two years later, the U.S. District Court ruled against the school. The school appealed and in February 2007, the case went to a U.S. District Court jury. Redwood lost that case, appealed in August, and is still waiting for a decision.
Now the school holds classes in a 40-year-old leased elementary-school building. There is not enough room for the whole school to assemble for prayer, chapel, or group worship. The school has no gym or athletic fields, and it can't offer full chemistry and biology labs. Attendance has shrunk by 25 percent, and a Redwood-hired expert calculated that the school has lost over $30.5 million in tuition losses, construction delays, and increased financial cost. If the SLUSD evicts the school again, it will close.
While legal battles for Christian schools continue in Michigan and California, Westchester Day School may be approaching the end of its five-year struggle. The township has 90 days to file an appeal, but it has racked up a $936,000 legal bill and elected a new mayor. Mamaroneck village trustee Tom Murphy did not rule out the possibility of an appeal, but said the village is seeking an amicable relationship with the school: "We were looking to settle this in the best interests of the taxpayers of the village and move on." If this case doesn't go to Washington, others probably will.