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Clarkstown Pays Yeshiva $200,000 To Settle Grace Baptist Church RLUIPA Case

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Settlement Mandates Town Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board Of Appeals, Building Inspector Undergo Rigorous Course On Religious Liberty & RLUIPA

By Tina Traster

The Town of Clarkstown has brokered a legal settlement with a yeshiva that had sued the town for $10 million for allegedly violating its religious rights under the RLUIPA federal statute. Clarkstown has paid Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland $200,000 plus town officials will be required to undergo religious liberty land use training.

The Town’s town board, Town Zoning Board of Appeals, the Town’s Planning Board and the town’s building inspector will be required to take a rigorous course on religious liberty land use training, including on RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) with Eric W. Treene, Esq. of Catholic University of America within 120 days from the settlement, which was signed on March 4, according to the agreement. Treene served for 19 years in four administrations in the U.S. Department of Justice as Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination. The agreement calls for written certification by the town to Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP (counsel for Ateres) to prove the training was complete.

The town hired outside counsel, Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP, to represent it in the case. The town’s insurance company, Travelers Indemnity Company, will pay Ateres the settlement funds. The town has not made a formal announcement on the settlement.

The settlement stipulates that neither CUPON INC. nor Citizens United To Protect Our Neighborhoods Of Greater Nanuet Inc. are included in the settlement agreement Ateres struck with the town.

In response to the settlement, Yehudah Buchweitz, who is representing Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland, said, “We are pleased with the outcome of the case with respect to the Town as we continue the case as against the CUPON entities.”

Ateres had contracted with Grace Baptist Church to acquire the property in October 2018 for $4.3 million and planned to close two months later. After Grace Baptist Church terminated the contract with Ateres, the Town of Clarkstown’s Board authorized the town to purchase the Grace Baptist Church in Nanuet for $4.5 million for “general municipal purposes” in November of 2019. The transaction closed in early 2020.

The original suit accused Supervisor George Hoehmann, Clarkstown, and CUPON of a concerted effort to undermine its ability to close the then-pending contract to acquire Grace Baptist Church – claiming defendants had worked together to derail the yeshiva’s financing, building permit, zoning application, and contract with the church. Ateres claimed it was thwarted in its efforts in late 2018 and 2019 to acquire the Grace Baptist Church site in Nanuet for use as a girls’ yeshiva.

The District Court in White Plains dismissed the complaint in July 2022 saying Ateres “did not have standing” to assert its claims because Grace Baptist Church terminated the contract before the Town had a chance to rule on its zoning application, and Ateres had not adequately protected itself in its contract with the seller.

In December, in a blow to the Town of Clarkstown and the local activist group, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York’s dismissal of a lawsuit that had accused the Town of Clarkstown, Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann and CUPON (Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods) of interfering with a yeshiva’s contract to purchase the church in Nanuet and of violating the Academy’s religious rights.

The Appellate Court said the Zoning Board of Appeals’ refusal to entertain the application obviated the need for a final decision that is normally required to secure standing.

The Second Circuit remanded Ateres’ $10 million case back to the District Court for further proceedings. The decision made clear that the yeshiva adequately plead a case supporting its RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) action.

There has been no development activity since the purchase was completed but the town has recently received a roughly $500,000 state grant for demolition of the decaying and contaminated structures. The town last month unanimously voted to authorize bonding in the amount of $720,000 to retain Sanz Construction of Staten Island, NY to remove asbestos from the old church.

Ateres was represented by Joshua Halpern and Yehudah Buchweitz of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP of New York City.