Justice Department backing church in legal bid to hold services at 25 Court St. in Canton
Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 5:45 pm

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department supports the case of the Christian Fellowship Center to hold religious services at its property at 25 Court St.

The Justice Department today filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York supporting the CFC’s claim that the Village of Canton violated the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) by barring it from locating its church at the property in the Village’s commercial zoning district.

The CFC is currently suing Canton in the Northern District court for an injunction which would supercede village code, allowing the church use of the property which sits in the village’s C1 Commercial zone. The C1 zone, which comprises about 4 percent of the village and was developed to concentrate the downtown business and cultural district, does not list churches or religious organization as approved uses for properties there.

“Federal law protects the ability of religious groups of all faiths to locate and grow their worship sites in communities across the country,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a press release. “It includes a requirement that religious assemblies be treated equally with nonreligious assemblies. The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing this and other federal protections for religious freedom.”

“The right to the free exercise of religion includes the freedom to assemble in a house of worship,” said Grant C. Jaquith, United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York. “When faith communities face discrimination through zoning or land use regulation, we will use the full force of federal law to ensure that this fundamental right is not unlawfully infringed.”

The CFC was denied a use permit by the village code enforcement officer to house its Canton congregation at the property last year, prior to purchasing it. The church asked the village Zoning Board of Appeals to reinterpret the denial based on RLUIPA and prior to the ZBA ruling, bought the property for $310,000 (as well as paying over $18,000 in unpaid taxes on the lot according to court documents). The ZBA subsequently upheld the original denial, ruling that the church was not being treated unequally in the matter under the stipulations of RLUIPA.

The church filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that the village violated RLUIPA because other assemblies are permitted in the commercial district, including theaters, fraternal organizations and social clubs.

The church also stated in court filings that it is seeking to hold worship services this Sunday, March 31, at 25 Court St., claiming that they have no other location options to hold services on that date. The Canton group normally rents space and services at the Best Western for around $477 per Sunday, but the venue is booked on March 31.

However, according to court documents filed by the village on March 18, the village mayor and deputy mayor have both researched several alternative locations for the church to hold services on March 31, including space at St. Mary’s, SUNY Canton’s Kingston Theater, the clubhouse at the Partridge Run Golf Club and the Canton Recreation Pavilion.

To read copies of the most recent court documents, visit the website of the CFC attorneys Mauck & Baker at http://mauckbaker.com/village-of-canton-sidesteps-liquor-law-argument. PDF versions of the court filings are found at the bottom of the page, following a press release from the firm.

The United States’ Statement of Interest issued today supports the Christian Fellowship Centers of New York Inc.’s argument that under RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision, that Canton treated the church less favorably than the various other groups permitted in the district, the press release said.

No hearing has been scheduled by the court at the time of this writing to hear arguments prior to any ruling on the church’s request for an injunction.