The outcome of this could be very significant:
Mamaroneck, Jewish school face off in court
By CANDICE FERRETTE, THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: November 15, 2005)
The head of school and executive director of a Mamaroneck yeshiva took the stand yesterday in federal court in White Plains in a trial being watched across the country for its potential impact on municipalities' power to restrict construction by religious groups.
Rabbi Joshua Einzig, Westchester Day School's head of school, testified that prayer is involved in every part of its daily instruction, implying that the school's proposed 44,000-square-foot classroom building represents a religious use.
"From when they come in to when they go home, they are absorbed in religion," Einzig said about the 420 students who attend the Orthodox Jewish day school.
Einzig said they pray before lunch and snacks, and, "We even have a prayer that we say when one leaves the bathroom."
But during a cross-examination, Mamaroneck village lawyer Kevin Plunkett's line of questioning implied that the classrooms and multipurpose rooms included in the school's 2001 building proposal would be used for the same secular purposes as a building, say, for a public or nonreligious school.
The trial, which opened yesterday before U.S. District Judge William C. Connor, is expected to continue through tomorrow with witnesses from the school. Today, an expert on traffic and another on Jewish education will take the stand. The village is expected to call its witnesses next week.
In 2003, Connor ruled summarily, without a trial, in favor of the Westchester Day School. The next day, the village of Mamaroneck appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In September 2004, the Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, but sent the case back to the district court for a trial on the facts.
In its 2004 decision, the appeals court indicated that if the District Court had reached its original decision in favor of the school after a trial, it would be likely to uphold the decision.
The case is the first to go to trial in this region - and one of the first in the nation - to test the constitutionality of the RLUIPA, a law that makes it very difficult for a municipality to stop religious groups from construction or expansion unless there is a "compelling interest," such as public safety.
The school says the proposed building should be protected under RLUIPA because what would take place in the classrooms is considered religious. The village argues that the classrooms are not for religious exercise, and that the study of such subjects as science, math and English is secular use. The village also argues that the federal law is unconstitutionally broad.
In her testimony yesterday, Rachel Goldman, the school's executive director, portrayed the school as having outdated facilities and needing the new building to continue educating students in the Jewish tradition and to accommodate students with learning disabilities. She also spoke about the decline in student enrollment and recent difficulties in recruiting teachers because of the lack of facilities on the 26-acre campus.
At one point, Plunkett appeared to be questioning whether the proposed structure was, indeed, motivated by prayer, since plans do not include a synagogue or a Judaic study room.
Goldman said that is because since the 2001 application, the school has renovated another building to include a synagogue and a study room.
Plunkett also asked Goldman about competition from other similar schools in Westchester. Goldman would not acknowledge competition from other schools, such as the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a Jewish day school with campuses in White Plains and Hartsdale.