A Sikh congregation is suing a Long Island town for halting construction on its new temple, arguing that officials did so to allegedly appease some residents who were “hostile towards the temple and its religious worship.”
The Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center Inc. alleges that the Town of Oyster Bay, New York, violated its constitutional rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it suspended the temple’s site plan approval in February and then ordered that the property undergo an environmental review.
The lawsuit, filed on June 29 in U.S. District Court in New York’s Eastern District, claims the town did not require other houses of worship to submit to a state environmental review, which the center called burdensome and lengthy.
“In the meantime, the temple’s congregation is left without a place for worship and conducting prayers,” the suit reads.
Town of Oyster Bay spokesman Brian Devine told NBC News in an email that the case is not about religion.
“The town’s highest priority is that there is adequate parking and that all relevant environmental reviews are followed so as to not disturb the surrounding community’s peaceful enjoyment of their neighborhood,” he said.
Devine continued, “The town has gone on record saying that the Sikh congregation has been a valued neighbor and a part of the Oyster Bay community for over 30 years, and it is our hope that we can resolve this matter amicably.”
The Sikh center’s federal lawsuit comes as some Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, have sued townships and municipalities for allegedly using land-use concerns like parking spaces as a pretext to deny permits for building mosques in their communities.
The controversy in Oyster Bay started after October 2014 when work on the new temple got underway, according to the suit. Some residents, opposed to its construction, allegedly complained to the town about the Sikh center’s use of its property, court papers said.
One neighbor, according to the lawsuit, said “he did not want to wake up in the morning to the smell of curry.”
Last July, the town issued a stop-work order almost 17 months after approving the center’s site plan, saying in the comments section that construction did not comply with the sitework plan or “off street parking plan,” according to the lawsuit.
The Sikh center, however, claims the township had no basis to issue the stop-work order, arguing that the approved site plan “did not require off street parking at any location other than the temple’s property” and that it would provide a total of 64 spaces, the lawsuit said.
The Sikh center, which had demolished the old temple, says it worked with the town through January to revise its site plan to address residents’ concerns, including the need for additional parking, court papers said. The town approved the center’s new plan on Jan. 21, according to the suit.
But less than two weeks later, the lawsuit alleges, the town board adopted a resolution suspending the site plan approval given to the center. According to the suit, the resolution said the center was “not in compliance with the contingency” that required it to acquire property for additional parking.
“Town officials have repeatedly and consistently ignored their own zoning ordinances in order to force the temple to provide more parking spaces than is required under the code,” the lawsuit counters.
In February, the town also notified the center in writing that it would need to reapply for site plan approval and subject the property to an environmental review, court papers said. The center maintains the review is unnecessary because the temple, which is 82 percent complete, is replacing an older structure on the same 1.12-acre site, the lawsuit said.
So far, the center has spent more than $2 million on construction, labor, and materials, and more than $1.1 million in expenses following the stop-work order last July, the lawsuit said.
The group is asking a judge to invalidate and declare as unconstitutional the town’s land-use ordinances, stop-work order, and resolution suspending the site plan approval. It’s also asking for compensatory damages and an order saying its new site plan complies with the town’s land-use and zoning regulations.