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A Lawsuit’s Potentially Crippling Effect

upper east side third church christ scientist front

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at 583 Park Avenue, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, won a legal victory against the City that is of great concern to the Municipal Art Society (click here to read a New York Times report).

With a dwindling membership and a need for funds to repair their building, the Church (designed by architects Delano and Aldrich and constructed in 1923) sought to introduce an income-generating use into their building. The church signed a lease with the catering organization Rose Group Park Avenue, who used the church space to host parties and events that could seat 800 people. Nearby residents fought the catering use because of associated noise and traffic in the residential area. The DOB, which had issued a pre-consideration determination permitting catered events at the church, on which the congregation relied, eventually sent a final determination that did not allow for the use. The DOB rightly determined that the large catering hall was not an “accessory use” to the church and thus in violation of the area’s residential zoning.

The church subsequently sued the city under a Federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA is intended to provide protection from religious discrimination to incarcerated persons and religious institutions seeking municipal permits or approvals in order to exercise their religion. MAS has been deeply concerned with the impact that RLUPA will have on municipalities’ ability to apply local land use regulations, like zoning and landmark regulations, to property owned by religious institutions. If interpreted too broadly, RLUIPA could be understood to mean that religious institutions are exempt from such regulations. In fact, in 2004 MAS filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a case challenging the Constitutionality of the Act.

The City has announced that they plan to appeal the Federal Court’s ruling. MAS is supportive of the city’s position and is considering further action.