Construction is expected to continue on a partially completed Sikh temple in New York after its congregation sued a Long Island town in June for halting work, according to an agreement the two sides reached this week.
The Town of Oyster Bay, which voted on the settlement Tuesday, consented to lifting a stop-work order, initially issued last July, and approving the site and landscaping plans for the 1.12-acre property, the settlement, filed on Nov. 16, reads.
The town and the Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center also agreed that the town board should no longer be authorized to serve as the oversight committee for the site plan approval process, according to the settlement in U.S. District Court in New York’s Eastern District.
“After meeting with both residents and congregants over the past few months to resolve this issue, with the ultimate goal here being that the temple would be built in a fair manner consistent with local, state, and federal laws, I believe this settlement represents the best outcome that could have possibly been hoped for by all parties involved,” town Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia told NBC News in an email.
The center, for its part, pledged to reduce the height of parking lot lamp lighting and to install ventless hood filters, to “substantially mitigate any odors that emanate from the new temple as a result of any cooking activities,” the agreement said.
Paul Savad, an attorney for the center, told NBC News by phone Thursday that he still believes this was “an obvious case of prejudice.”
“There was an injustice done because for about a year or so now, they’ve been unable to practice their religion at that location,” he said.
Asked why the center settled, Savad said, “It’s a financial burden for the religious institution to pay the legal fees. I’d rather just settle and get out.”
A federal judge still needs to sign off on the agreement to make it official, he added.
On June 29, the Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center filed suit in federal court against the Town of Oyster Bay, alleging that construction was stopped to appease some residents who were “hostile towards the temple and its religious worship.”
The group claimed the town violated its constitutional rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 when it suspended the temple's site plan approval in February and then ordered that the property undergo an environmental review.
It alleged in its lawsuit that other houses of worship were not required to submit to such a review.
RLUIPA prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that treat churches and religious assemblies unequally to nonreligious institutions; that discriminate against assemblies based on religion or totally exclude them; and that unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures, according to the Justice Department.
The Town of Oyster Bay, according to the settlement, has maintained that it sought to ensure all reviews required under state law and the town code were carried out for the new temple. It also denied claims that it had done so because of the religious beliefs or activities of the Sikh center’s members, the agreement said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many RLUIPA lawsuits have been brought privately since the law was enacted 16 years ago. Since 2010, the Justice Department, however, has opened 45 land-use investigations, filed eight RLUIPA suits involving land use, and submitted eight friend-of-the-court briefs in private RLUIPA lawsuits, according to a department report in July.