Town-church property rift up to federal judge: Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, 11/16/05

By Fernando Diaz

A federal judge on Tuesday heard arguments over a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges Brighton's eminent domain of a church's land restricts the church's right to practice religion.

U.S. District Judge David Larimer said that he would issue his decision "very soon."

Faith Temple closed on the purchase of 66 acres of land along Westfall Road near Winton Road to build a religious complex on July 15, but Brighton wants the land to expand the adjacent Buckland Park.

The town initiated eminent domain proceedings shortly thereafter, because by then it was prepared to pay for the parcel with voter-approved bonds.

Faith Temple countered by filing lawsuits in both federal and state courts.

In May, the church lost its fight in the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the church failed to prove the town was attempting to limit the church's exercise of religion.

So far, Larimer has allowed the church to finish its purchase of the land and kept Brighton from fully undertaking eminent domain proceedings.

The state ruled on constitutional grounds and could not issue a ruling on a federal statute, which is where the case is currently being contested.

Brighton's attorneys said Tuesday that Faith Temple's argument is based on a statute enacted by Congress that does not apply to the law of eminent domain procedure.

Attorneys for both sides agreed that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, codified provisions guaranteed by the Constitution intended to protect religious exercise.

But William Bauer, who represented Brighton, said the law specifically referred to "land use regulation," such as zoning or landmarking laws, and a government's eminent domain powers are neither.

But an attorney for Faith Temple cautioned Larimer that he could set a dangerous precedent by throwing out the lawsuit.

"It would be ironic for the town to do by condemnation what it could not do by zoning," argued David Cook, who represents Faith Temple.

Cook argued that the Religious Land Use Act was intended to protect religious organizations from governments specifically targeting them. Dismissing the lawsuit could allow municipalities to circumvent its intent in the future, he said.

Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel said the town is "confident that Judge Larimer will give this matter his thorough and thoughtful consideration."

Democrat and Chronicle: www.democratandchronicle.com