(CN) - A church in Manhattan can hold private functions on its property because a hotel and co-op building in the same neighborhood "conduct substantially similar events," the 2nd Circuit ruled.
The court unanimously found that the city's buildings department was trying to unfairly restrict the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, from using its building for large-scale catering events.
Under a 2006 contract, the Rose Group catering company paid to renovate the church's 80-year old building in exchange for the right to host private functions there.
After the church secured an accessory-use permit for the events, and renovations on the multimillion dollar project were under way, residents complained and the city revoked its permit.
The church argued that the nearby Beekman co-operative apartments and a Regency hotel both conducted catering and event services, and that the city permitted such operations even though they were in violation of the same occupancy laws.
A federal judge ruled for the church, finding that it received "unequal treatment" under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law prohibits a government entity from treating "a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution."
The Manhattan appellate court dismissed the city's appeal, which argued that the church was not "similarly situated" to the co-op and hotel.
In his ruling for the circuit panel, Judge Guido Calabresi rejected the differences that the city highlighted in its appeal and found the "institutions are similarly situated for all functional intents and purposes."
"By flatly prohibiting the church from even concededly accessory catering uses, the city has treated the church 'on less than equal terms with' the hotels, which it allows to continue to use their facilities in what the city - viewing its actions in the most favorable light - must consider 'accessory' ways,'" Calabresi wrote.
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