A Westchester County town violated a federal religious discrimination law when it cited fire, safety and zoning concerns as a pretext to block a Pentecostal congregation from building a new church, a federal appeals court held yesterday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the Town of Greenburgh ran afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it stopped the Fortress Bible Church from erecting a new building in 2004 to accommodate its growing flock.

The three-judge panel also said in Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, 10-3634-cv, that Greenburgh violated the First Amendment, the equal protection clause and New York state constitutional and statutory law by stopping the church from expanding.

Judges John Walker Jr. (See Profile), Denny Chin (See Profile) and Raymond Lohier Jr. (See Profile) decided the appeal following oral arguments on Sept. 23, 2011, becoming the first court of appeals to address the issue of whether an environmental quality statute may constitute a zoning law governed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), in this case the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Walker wrote the panel’s 37-page opinion, upholding a 2010 decision in favor of the church by Southern District Judge Stephen Robinson.

In his 206-page opinion that followed a 26-day bench trial in 2010, Robinson found credible the claims of church leaders that the town supervisor and some members of the town board wanted to kill the project from the start, and then used safety and planning regulations as pretexts to accomplish their goal.

Robinson said the town’s “purported concerns” about the impact the project would have on public safety “were unsupported if not wholly fabricated,” and Greenburgh had therefore violated RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. §2000cc (NYLJ, Aug. 19, 2010).

The evangelical Christian congregation now holds services in a cramped 3,000-square-foot facility in the city of Mount Vernon. In 1998, the church bought a 6.53-acre plot on Pomander Drive in Greenburgh and filed a proposal to build a 14,600-square-foot facility to accommodate 500 worshippers and about 150 students in kindergarten through grade 12 at Fortress Christian Academy.

In his opinion, Robinson said that at a July 2000 meeting, Town Supervisor Paul Feiner raised traffic concerns as one of his biggest worries, but later told church representatives that “50 percent [of his concern] was traffic” and the other “50 percent” was the church’s tax-exempt status. Feiner and other town officials, Robinson said, did not want more land taken off the tax rolls.

The church declined Feiner’s suggestion that it purchase a fire truck for the town or make some other payment in lieu of taxes. The application to build the church was ultimately denied in 2004.

RLUIPA bars governments from imposing land use regulations in a way that places a substantial burden on a religious institution.

The town’s appeal to the Second Circuit made several arguments, including that RLUIPA does not apply to the town’s environmental quality review process.

But the circuit was unpersuaded, as Walker said, “in these circumstances, the Town’s actions during the review process and its denial of the Church’s proposal constituted an application of its zoning laws sufficient to implicate RLUIPA for a number of reasons.”

Walker said that because the church’s plan required discretionary government approval, it triggered the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and the required approvals “all relate to zoning and land use rather than traditional environmental concerns.”

In its town code, he said, Greenburgh had “intertwined the SEQRA process with its zoning regulation” and, once the review process began, the town “focused on zoning issues rather than traditional environmental issues.”

“Finally, to hold that RLUIPA is inapplicable to what amounts to zoning actions taken in the context of a statutorily mandated environmental quality review would allow towns to insulate zoning decisions from RLUIPA,” Walker said. “We decline to endorse a process that would allow a town to evade RLUIPA by what essentially amounts to re-characterization of its zoning decisions.”

Walker said Robinson’s “comprehensive findings demonstrate that the Town disingenuously used SEQRA to obstruct and ultimately deny the Church’s project.”

Walker cautioned that “in no sense do we believe that ordinary environmental review considerations are subject to RLUIPA,” but when a state-required review process “serves as a vehicle to resolve zoning and land use issues,” the decision “constitutes a land use regulation as that term is defined in RLUIPA.”

The circuit had little trouble finding that the town used land use regulations to place a substantial burden on the Fortress Bible Church’s exercise of religion.

“The Town attempted to extort from the Church a payment in lieu of taxes, it ignored and then replaced its Planning Commissioner when he advocated on the Church’s behalf, and Town staff intentionally destroyed relevant evidence,” Walker said.

“Further,” he said, “the district court’s finding regarding the Town’s open hostility to the Church…was not clear error; the record reflects comments from members of the Board indicating that they were opposed to the project because it was ‘another church.’”

Donna Frosco of Keane & Beane, a lawyer for the church, said yesterday that one member of the board of trustees destroyed information regarding land use applications and a town staffer testified he routinely destroyed notes after a period of time, but he destroyed his notes on this case much quicker than usual.

Robinson left the bench for private practice on the same day he released his opinion. The circuit upheld the injunction Robinson issued and remanded the case to Judge George Daniels. Next up, the parties will argue the town’s claims that the church is not entitled to damages before Magistrate Judge George Yanthis.

“This has been pending since 1998,” Frosco said yesterday. “The church sought relief in the courts only after inordinate delay, mistreatment at the hands of the town and as a last resort, so its been quite a long time coming. We’re very pleased. We feel their rights have been vindicated.”

Robert Spolzino, Joanna Topping and Cathleen Giannetta of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker represented the Town of Greenburgh.