Note: Law clerk Joanna Lima assisted in drafting this blog post.
Courts have recently expanded what constitutes religious conduct. In particular, in Matter of Sullivan v. Board of Zoning Appeals of City of Albany, 144 A.D. 3d 1480 (3d Dep’t 2016), an appellate court ruled that the use of a portion of a church parsonage for a “home base” for up to 14 homeless individuals was a permissible use of a “house of worship.”
Respondent Bethany Reformed Church owned certain real property, including a sanctuary, an educational and social building, a parsonage, and a parking lot, all of which were located adjacent to petitioner’s property. The properties were located in a residential district, which permitted, among other uses “houses of worship.” The Code of the City of Albany defined “houses of worship” as “a structure or part of a structure used for worship or religious ceremonies.”
The Church advised the City of its desire to partner with a not-for-profit corporation to establish a “home base” for up to 14 homeless individuals who were not attending school, enrolled in training programs or working at their current jobs. The City’s Building Department told the Church that it needed a use variance or special use permit as the proposed use did not appear to be for a religious purpose. The Church then sought an interpretation from the Board of Zoning Appeals as to whether this intended use was permitted within the zoning district. The Board found that the Church’s intended use was consistent with “the mission and actions of a house of worship…” and did not require a variance or special use permit. Petitioner brought a proceeding to annul the Board’s determination.
The Supreme Court, County of Albany, did not agree with the Board’s interpretation and annulled the Board’s decision, finding that the proposed use for the parsonage was not reasonably consistent with the term, “house of worship.” The Church appealed. The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the Supreme Court, noting that, generally, “a zoning board’s interpretation of a zoning law  is afforded great deference and will only be disturbed if it is irrational or unreasonable.” An exception to this standard is where the issue is a pure legal interpretation of the zoning law. Moreover, where a term is not defined by a zoning law, courts can apply the term’s ordinary meaning and that “any ambiguity in the language employed must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”
The Third Department first explained the rules applicable to judicial deference of municipal decisions, whether the issue presented was fact-based warranting judicial deference to the Board’s interpretation or a pure legal question excepting such deference. Interestingly, the Appellate Division did not apply these rules in its reversal of the lower court. The Appellate Division held that, regardless of the analytical approach, the Board’s interpretation should be upheld. The Court noted that the term “worship” was not defined in the applicable zoning law, so the Appellate Division chose to use its ordinary meaning. The Court, relying on the dictionary meaning of the term, determined that the ordinary meaning of “worship” is defined as “any form of religious devotion, ritual, or service showing reverence – especially with respect to a divine being or supernatural power” and also includes “an act of expressing such reverence.” Noting that previous courts have been flexible in their interpretation of religious uses under zoning ordinances and did not limit religious uses solely to mean a house of prayer, the Court found that services to homeless individuals constitute religious conduct because acts of charity play a significant role in religious worship.