Monday, July 06, 2020

Jackson officials took umbrage at charges leveled against them in a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) charging “extreme animus” by them and some residents toward Orthodox Jews, branding those charges as “erroneous” and “full of factual inaccuracies.”

In a statement by township council vice president Alex Sauickie at the start of a May 26 meeting, which could only be attended over Zoom, he said officials had been engaged in talks with the DOJ since being informed in February that federal authorities planned legal action. As a result, he said the township was taken by surprise by the filing of the lawsuit the previous week.

During the meeting, the governing body voted to rescind one of the two offending land-restriction ordinances cited in the lawsuit. However, the other was tabled until the June 23 meeting because of what Sauickie called “many factual inaccuracies.”

“We will not allow Jackson Township, a town that is inviting to all, which has been attacked for the last several years by outside entities and has never been given the opportunity to tell its side of the story to be branded so negatively with a broad brush,” said Sauickie. “To set clear expectations with all of you tonight, should there not be amicable discussions with our attorneys in the next few weeks, we will go no further and Jackson will have our day in court to fight these allegations.”

The filing comes after years of wrangling between Jewish leaders and township officials, resulting in a suit filed by Agudath Israel of America.

The May 20 filing from the civil rights division of the DOJ charges local leaders targeted the Orthodox community through zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and barring religious boarding schools. It specifically alleges the township entities violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome discriminatory land use regulations, and the Fair Housing Act.

However, citing remarks made by township attorney Gregory McGuckin at the previous council meeting, Sauickie denied there had ever been an application for a dormitory to come before any municipal land use review board and was adamant any group has always had the ability to do so.

“They have that ability now, had it in 2018, 2016 and all the years before that,” he said, adding the council was on record even before the lawsuit was filed as having taken steps to rescind a 2017 ordinance cited by the DOJ that appeared to prohibit dorms because it was redundant with already existing zoning regulations.

Although the council voted unanimously to repeal that ordinance regarding dormitories and had been prepared to also rescind the other ordinance restricting location of schools, Sauickie said “given the many factual inaccuracies in the DOJ press release and complaint we now feel there is too much uncertainty in the DOJ’s understanding of what is going on in Jackson.”

He added the township’s attorneys will be meeting with the DOJ during the weeks leading up to the June 23 meeting to clear up erroneous statements and documents.

“We hope that the DOJ attorneys will meet with our attorneys with an open mind and when they realize the inaccuracies will quickly and publicly move to correct them,” said Sauickie.

He noted that the township has “dozens of religions” practicing within its borders and that Orthodox Jews comprise approximately 10% of its almost 60,000 residents. Within the last 10 years, Sauickie said, only one application for a religious institution had come before a local land use board and it was approved. The planning board green-lighted plans for an Orthodox synagogue, which is not yet completed, in February 2018.

He cited a 2019 FBI report ranking hate crimes in 172 New Jersey communities that put Jackson at 165 with only one hate crime that was solved and the perpetrators punished.

Sauickie also said one religious school had been turned down for improper land use and that decision had been upheld in superior court. However, the DOJ in its filing said litigation over the June 2014 denial by the zoning board of an application by the all-girls Oros Bais Yaakov High School is still pending. Calls and emails to Sauickie by The Jewish Link for clarification were not returned.

Sauickie also cited the council’s decision to pass an ordinance to allow an eruv. However, the DOJ said shortly after the approval of the restrictive land use ordinances, the council passed an ordinance prohibiting obstructions in the right of way aimed at preventing pipes being affixed to telephone poles to block the eruv. Agudath Israel challenged the legislation in its suit and a resolution dropping the eruv ban was later passed.

The DOJ complaint, filed in the District of New Jersey, alleges the township passed ordinances prohibiting dormitories that were used by the planning board to make it impossible for religious boarding schools, such as Orthodox yeshivot, to be established in the community. Despite appearing to ban all dormitories, the planning board subsequently approved without variances plans for two nonreligious projects with “dormitory-type housing,” according to the DOJ suit.

“These ordinances were enacted against the backdrop of widespread animus toward the Orthodox community moving into Jackson and intentionally target the needs of the Orthodox community to establish religious schools and religious schools with associated dormitory housing within the township,” the lawsuit states, thus treating them on a “less than equal” basis.

Sauickie said the municipality’s land use laws protect it against overdevelopment, preserve the environment and guide how it should develop in the future.

By Debra Rubin