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Saturday, January 28, 2023
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The law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges, LLP, whose pro bono unit specializes in support of religious organizations seeking protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), is representing an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school, Ateres Bais Yaakov, now located in New Hempstead, New York. The school, its lawyers claim, was the victim of a conspiracy by the town of Clarkstown, New York and others to block its property purchase of the Grace Baptist Church in that town.

RLUIPA protects religious individuals and institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land-use regulations. Ateres has alleged that Clarkstown violated RLUIPA by engaging in a course of conduct that substantially burdened Ateres’s ability to secure the necessary permits to establish its school in their town. At considerable expense, Ateres relocated to New Hempstead after its financing fell through and the seller canceled the sale. Although the town bought the property for itself after foiling Ateres’s planned purchase, it remains unused to this day. “This, of course, only strengthens our allegations that the town’s purchase of the property was designed to permanently prevent Ateres, or any other unwanted group, from using the property,” said Yehudah Buchweitz, a partner at Weil Gotshal and lead counsel in this case.

“Ateres lost a considerable amount of funds attempting to comply with the town’s constantly shifting goal posts for receiving approval of its building permit application. But [the] defendants’ primary goal was simply to prevent Ateres from using the building as a school for Orthodox Jewish girls.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a “friend of the court” filing last week, summarizes the troubling pattern of anti-Orthodox and antisemitic exclusionary policy practices fomented by town councils in New York and New Jersey localities over the past decade, such as Mahwah, Upper Saddle River, Clifton, Jackson and others, which have required intervention by the Department of Justice and State Attorneys General. It further examines how the disturbing allegations in Clarkstown mirror land-use actions taken by other municipalities in this region that were the subject of actions to refuse to permit properties and keep them in development limbo.

A local political party publicly warned residents of a “hostile invasion” by the Orthodox school, and the town’s highest ranking elected official, Supervisor George Hoehmann, reportedly worked directly with the local chapter of “Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods” (CUPON) to prevent Ateres from securing the funding and regulatory approvals necessary to establish the school at Grace Baptist.

At a Clarkstown public board meeting on November 27, 2018, “Hoehmann gave the audience—residents of Clarkstown—the contact information of the governmental agency—Rockland County Industrial Development Agency (IDA)—providing Ateres with public financing, and encouraged residents to ‘voice their concerns’ to the agency,” wrote Buchweitz in a statement to The Jewish Link. In the same meeting, “audience members told town leadership that they needed to “work hard[er] to purchase property so as to prevent Nanuet from ‘turn[ing] into Ramapo,’ added Buchweitz.

Less than a month later, on December 18, 2018, the development agency canceled Ateres’s tax-exempt public financing. On January 10, 2019, Hoehmann keynoted CUPON’s inaugural dinner, which celebrated IDA’s cancellation of Ateres’s financing. “By way of introduction, CUPON leader James Farkas praised Hoehmann for being ‘amazing in this process’ and that he ‘expect[ed] that [collaboration] to continue.’ Hoehmann then described CUPON as ‘a wonderful group of citizen advocates’ and informed his audience that the town would deny Ateres’s building permit application, even though the building inspector had not yet announced any formal judgment on the application,” added Buchweitz.

The following day, on January 11, 2019, the official Facebook page of a local political party affiliated with Hoehmann characterized the CUPON dinner as a “2 hour presentation that focused on how the community can protect themselves from a hostile invasion” by the Orthodox Jews.

“Comments to the post echoed this sentiment: “[we] do not want … Hasidics to infiltrate our local government”; “Nanuet and Orangetown residents do not want Hasidic communities here.”

That very same day, the building inspector denied Ateres’s permit application, falsely claiming that Ateres needed to satisfy certain additional zoning requirements in order to secure approval, said Buchweitz.

This past July, a federal trial court in New York dismissed the school’s civil rights complaint, on the theory that CUPON, not the town, was to blame. Weil is appealing that decision to the U.S, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and its appeal brief gathers all of the key evidence proving a concerted conspiracy between CUPON and the local government in Clarkstown. In addition to the ADL, the Agudath Israel of America has filed a brief in support, which documents CUPON’s partnership with local governments across New York to systematically exclude Orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues from communities like Clarkstown. The three organizations argue that Congress enacted RLUIPA precisely to address this issue.

ADL filed its amicus brief last week, urging the Second Circuit to reverse the district court decision that Ateres “did not have standing” to bring its religious-discrimination and civil rights claims. ADL’s brief, prepared by the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, sets forth a history of RLUIPA and its intended purpose.

After the block of the intended purchase by Ateres, the school stated it suffered clear injuries, in the form of both stigma and economic loss, when Clarkstown discriminated against it, prevented it from securing regulatory approval, and encouraged potential financiers to terminate their dealings with it.

“Over the past two decades, as Orthodox Jewish communities have looked for space to practice their faith in our region, ADL has been monitoring a disturbing rise in antisemitic animus, sometimes in the form of harassment and violence, and other times manifesting in more systemic and insidious ways, including in how municipalities have used zoning laws and other land-use ordinances to burden and exclude Orthodox Jews,” said Scott Richman, ADL New York/New Jersey regional director. “Municipalities in our region have exploited these laws and ordinances to prevent Orthodox Jewish communities and institutions from purchasing properties in these towns, and this is precisely what Ateres Bais Yaakov has alleged here—a clear pattern of discriminatory conduct by Clarkstown, in coordination with a group known to espouse antisemitic views, to thwart Ateres Bais Yaakov’s purchase.

“The district court’s analysis in this case unfortunately offers municipalities a roadmap to discriminate through the zoning process and still evade judicial review,” continued Richman. “We urge the court to carefully consider Ateres Bais Yaakov’s allegations concerning indicators of discrimination in the context of similar exclusionary zoning practices by nearby municipalities. These land-use abuses to prevent Orthodox Jews from freely practicing their beliefs, if proven, are precisely what RLUIPA was enacted to combat.”

By Elizabeth Kratz

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