LDS Church Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Harrison, New York
HARRISON, NEW YORK -- In a new attempt to get its proposed Harrison
New York Temple built, the LDS Church today filed a major civil
rights lawsuit against the Town of Harrison, its town board, planning
board and zoning board of appeals and against the town building
inspector, alleging a conspiracy to deprive the Church of its civil
rights. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants "deprived plaintiffs
of the ability to use their property to construct a place of worship
. . . and have engaged in other acts which violate the plaintiffs'
The lawsuit marks the beginning of a new phase in the Church's
attempt to build the Harrison Temple, after more than five years of
trying to work through the town's zoning laws, and after a lawsuit
last year that overturned the Town's Zoning Board of Appeals in its
denial of a height variance for the Temple's steeple. But the outcome
of this phase and how long it will last is still not clear.
The Church is still in the process of getting a "special exception"
permit from the Harrison Town Board hat covers how the Temple will
be used. The permit is the final requirement necessary for the
Temple, following the already-obtained approval of the Harrison
Planning Board, and a still-in-dispute zoning variance from the
Harrison Zoning Board of Appeals. When the Zoning Board of Appeals
turned down the application, the Church went to acting state Supreme
Court Justice Peter Leavitt, who overruled the board, ordering it to
grant the variance. [In New York State, the Supreme Court is not the
highest level in the court system. It is a trial court, and its
decisions can be appealed to an appellate division, and then to the
Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.] In April, the town
filed an appeal of Leavitt's decision, which has not yet been heard.
The 38-page-long complaint filed Monday morning in the U.S. District
Court for the Southern District of New York details the events during
the past five years that the Church says amounts to a violation of
its rights. The complaint alleges that the more than five years spent
in the approval process so far is "unprecedented" and that most of
the hearings and meetings held by the various town boards have been
"taken up by the Opponents making long, repetitive statements against
the Church and its temples."
According to the Church's complaint, what should have been a
five-month-long review process before the Planning Board, that review
process took three and a half years. It also alleges that the
Planning Board created new standards not required under the law and
forced the Church to meet those standards. And when the Board finally
approved the Church's plans, it did so with severe restrictions in
the building's size, prohibiting the Church from operating a
Visitor's Center, Genealogy Center or any kind of festival or pageant
on the property.
The allegations also indicate that the Harrison Town Board interfered
in the process, trying to change the zoning ordinances after the
Church had filed its applications. Board members appeared at the
Planning Board meetings and the Mayor expressed his disapproval of
the Church's plans in public, and the Town Board held hearings on the
Temple in an attempt to influence the Planning Board's vote. All of
this, the Church alleges, is inappropriate given that the Town Board
would eventually review the Planning Board's decision.
The Church also alleges that the Town Zoning Board of Appeals delayed
its decision process and eventually rejected the Church's
application, exceeding its authority. That decision was then
overturned by a New York State Supreme Court Judge, and an appeal of
his decision hasn't yet been resolved.
Then earlier this year, the Church's application reached the Town
Board itself, and, according to the allegations, the Town Board
failed to hold timely hearings as required by law, and violated the
law in its procedures. When the hearings were again held, the Church
claims, the Board allowed the Temple's opponents to delay the process
with filibusters for another six months. The complaint also alleges
that the Town Board tried to condemn the Temple site for park land.
These allegations, says the Church, add up to a violation of the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalize Persons Act of 2000, a law
introduced in the U.S. Congress by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and
signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Town's actions, the
complaint says, "have imposed a substantial burden on plaintiffs'
exercise of religion." These actions have put the Church "on less
than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions," and,
according to the complaint, "discriminates against [the Church] on
the basis of religion."
The defendants in the lawsuit must now respond to these allegations,
or acquiesce to the Church's demands. The response itself will take
weeks, if not months, and a judgement in this newly-file case could
be years away. Meanwhile, the appeal of a judge's reversal of the
Zoning Board of Appeals decision must still be resolved, and the Town
Board, which will meet in February for more public hearings on the
Church's application, will wait another six months for the New York
firm Vollmer and Associates to conduct a new traffic study (the
fourth traffic study on the Harrison Temple) looking at traffic
patterns at the LDS Temples in San Diego, California; Toronto,
Canada; St. Louis, Missouri and Orlando, Florida during all day
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Corporation of the Presiding Bishop et al. v. The Town/Village of Harrison et al.
U.S. District Court Southern District of New York 17Dec01 D1
Charles A. Goldberger: McCullogh, Goldberger &Staudt, LLP
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