U.S. Sues Suffern for Denying Variance to Orthodox
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WHITE PLAINS — The federal government accused a village of religious discrimination yesterday for denying a zoning variance to a residence used by Orthodox Jews so they can visit a hospital on the Sabbath without breaking their law against driving.
In a lawsuit filed in White Plains, the government said that in denying the variance for a Shabbos House, the Rockland County village of Suffern was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. It requested an injunction against enforcement of any village laws that would burden the group’s religious practice.
“This lawsuit enforces Congress’ determination that local zoning regulations must give way when they unlawfully burden religious exercise,” Michael Garcia, a U.S. attorney, said.
A village attorney, Terry Rice, said that while he had not seen the lawsuit, the agency that requested the variance “did not claim it was a religious use.”
The lawsuit says that from 1988 to 2004, Bikur Cholim Inc., an Orthodox Jewish service agency, provided meals and lodging for Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath and other holy days in a Shabbos House on the grounds of Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, about 40 miles north of midtown Manhattan. That allowed the Orthodox Jews who wanted to visit or transport patients to avoid driving to or from the hospital on the Sabbath.
Believers would drive to the Shabbos House on Friday, before the Sabbath began at sundown, and then could walk to the hospital during the Sabbath and drive home afterward. The closest hotel is 3 1/2 miles away, Paul Savad, a lawyer for Bikur Cholim, said.
The Shabbos House also helped residents comply with other Sabbath prohibitions; for example, lights were on timers or left on throughout the Sabbath so the Orthodox would not have to use electric switches. The housing is free, so there is no money to be handled.
Mr. Savad said that under the Religious Land Use act, when a zoning variance is requested for the practice of religion, the municipality must show a compelling reason not to grant it. He said because the Shabbos House is on the fringe of a residential area and all cars would be parked at the hospital, the village has no good reason not to grant the variance.
Mr. Savad said visiting the sick is a strongly held religious practice for Orthodox Jews.