Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has settled its lawsuit against Jackson that charged the township with “extreme animus” toward Orthodox Jews through the enactment of discriminatory zoning laws that restricted the building of religious schools and dormitories and other measures targeting them.

The settlement, announced June 15, by the DOJ, comes on the heels of the township planning board’s approval of a group of yeshivot, a direct result of a temporary preliminary injunction handed down in May 2021 blocking ”discriminatory and unconstitutional ordinances” enacted to specifically ban yeshivas, dormitories and disallow eruvim.

The suit against the township and many of its officials that led to the injunction was filed five years ago by Agudath Israel of America. U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp issued the injunction, noting the record indicated the ordinances were motivated by antisemitism.

The federal suit was filed in 2020 by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ. It charged local leaders were “intentionally” attempting to dissuade the Orthodox community from moving to the municipality through zoning restrictions in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome discriminatory land use regulations, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

It charged that in 2017 Jackson enacted two ordinances that banned dormitories and severely restricted where religious schools could locate. These ordinances were allegedly enacted in response to the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in Jackson and surrounding areas and amid public comments arguing that the ordinances should be enacted to prevent the Orthodox Jewish community from living in or moving to Jackson. The township council voted unanimously to enact the ordinances.

Despite appearing to ban all dormitories, the planning board subsequently approved, without variances, plans for two nonreligious projects with “dormitory-type housing.” The approved plans were a large complex near Six Flags Great Adventure theme park, including associated housing for a multiple sclerosis research center with approximately 60 “special needs” units located directly above the research facility, allowing researchers to work close to the population they will serve; and a multipurpose athletic complex with a commercial area to include restaurants, retail buildings and a hotel. The sports complex at the park also featured “team suites” for visiting sports teams that would serve up to 1,800 children a week during the summer.

However, the DOJ consent order appears to ensure the temporary injunction from the Agudath Israel case will be permanent since the agreed upon federal settlement will require Jackson to repeal the remaining discriminatory ordinance and replace it with one that will allow religious elementary and secondary schools, religious higher learning institutions and religious residential schools. It will also require the new zoning ordinance treat religious schools equally with township non-religious institutions.

“This township council welcomes and embraces people of all faiths, races and ethnic backgrounds,” said Mayor Michael Reina in a prepared statement. “It’s time for Jackson Township to move forward. This governing body is committed to ensuring that we will do just that in order to foster one, united community, respectful of all people who call Jackson home.”

He said the settlement will allow Jackson to retain control over its planning and zoning functions instead of “running the risk of ceding control of those essential functions to the court,” adding it also ensures all its planning and zoning complies with state and federal laws and “very importantly, the settlement allows us to put an end to this costly and lengthy litigation.”

The consent order also requires Jackson train its officials and employees on the requirements of RLUIPA and the FHA, establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA and FHA complaints, pay a civil penalty of $45,000 and pay $150,000 into a settlement fund from which aggrieved persons can seek payment. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey and must still be approved by the court.

“Zoning restrictions that intentionally target religious communities have no place in our society,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division in a prepared statement. “Federal civil rights laws provide strong protections to ensure that religious communities are treated equally and not subjected to discrimination because of their beliefs. This resolution reaffirms that members of the Orthodox Jewish community—as with people of all faiths—are welcome in our communities and have the right to practice their religion free of discrimination.”

Other measures enacted by the municipality cited in the complaint include a “no knock” ordinance passed in August 2015 establishing a registry of residents who did not want solicitors canvassing at their homes in response to resident complaints about potential buyers, many of them Orthodox Jews, coming to their residences.

“RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act protect the rights of religious communities to worship and obtain housing in communities free from discrimination and unequal treatment,” said U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger for the District of New Jersey. “This office remains steadfast in its commitment to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, and as the proposed consent order demonstrates, we will continue to take steps to protect the civil rights of the Orthodox Jewish community and all communities throughout this district.”

By Debra Rubin

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