A recent court decision found that the Town of Greenburgh had violated the rights of the Fortress Bible Church in denying them approval for an application to build their church in Greenburgh. The saga spanned twelve years, starting in 1998 when the Church purchased property on Dobbs Ferry Road. Attorney Robert Bernstein, President of the Edgemont Community Council has been following the case and answers some questions below about what this ruling will mean for Edgemont and Greenburgh residents:
Question: The trial was held in June 2007. Why has it taken so long for the ruling to be issued?
Answer: Judge Robinson has had a reputation for taking his time issuing opinions, and three years is generally considered a long time. However, this was a bench trial that Judge Robinson presided over, and he made it clear on the record when the trial ended, and when final papers were submitted in June 2007, that he intended to rule against the Town. When a judge delays the issuance of a opinion where the result is a foregone conclusion, it is usually because he hopes the parties and their counsel will get the message and settle the case pronto. That, however, never happened. During the entire three-year wait for Judge Robinson's opinion, I am told that the Town never once engaged in settlement discussions. When Judge Robinson announced last month that he would be stepping down from the bench on August 11, that should have been an obvious sign once again to the Town to get this case settled, or face the wrath of a judge who made clear three years ago he would find against the Town.
Question: What did the court find?
Answer: The court charged the Town of Greenburgh with violating the Church’s first amendment rights of free speech, free assembly, equal protection and due process. They also found that the Town had discriminated against the church under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA. The judge cited the Town for “"intentional delay, hostility and bias towards the Church's application.”
Question: How much does the Town owe the Church?
Answer: The Church must submit a new damage estimate consisting of (1) increased construction costs as a result of the Town’s delays – which could mean delays of as long as ten years; (2) increased traffic improvement costs as a result of the Town’s delays; (3) reimbursement of excess fees charged by the Town; (4) consultant fees; (5) attorneys fees for the Town’s having violated the Open Meetings Law; and (6) costs incurred as a result of the litigation, which could include millions of dollars in legal fees.
Question: Who will pay the estimated $4- $5 million in damages to the Church. Does the Town have insurance?
Answer: Taxpayers, not insurance, are expected to foot the bill for these millions of dollars in damages because the Town’s insurers notified the Town that they would not cover any finding of intentional violations of federal law. All of the findings today involve intentional violations of federal law. Specifically, the Town and Feiner were found liable for violating the Church's rights under the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause, as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Question: Do you believe the Town could win an appeal?
Answer: In my professional opinion, the Town has virtually no chance of winning on appeal -- the factual findings are just too damning. In addition, interest will continue to accrue on the amount awarded while an appeal takes place.
Learn more on the Edgemont Community Council website: