April 18, 2024
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Jackson and New Jersey Settle Case Over Discrimination Against Orthodox Jews

After years of battling with authorities and the Jewish community over its allegedly discriminatory use of zoning and land use powers to keep out the Orthodox community, Jackson has ended another legal conflict.

On Aug. 28 the New Jersey Attorney General’s office announced that it and the Division of Civil Rights (DCR) had reached a settlement with the municipality, which will pay $575,000 in penalties and restitution funds, repeal the ordinances that allegedly target Orthodox Jews and adopt new policies and procedures that protect religious freedom.

The settlement includes $275,000 in penalties; a $150,000 restitution fund for individuals harmed by the township’s actions; and an additional $150,000 in suspended penalties that will be assessed if it violates the consent order. The 26-page consent order was signed by Ocean County Superior Court Judge Mark Trancone and Mayor Michael Reina, who was also named as a defendant in the suit.

“No one in New Jersey should face discrimination for their religious beliefs,” said Attorney General Matthew Platkin in a statement. “We are firmly committed to eliminating discrimination and bias across our state, and we expect local leaders to comply with our robust antidiscrimination laws. The settlement announced today is a powerful testament to our commitment to protecting residents’ right to religious freedom.”

The DRC’s complaint was filed in 2021 and alleged that both officials and township employees engaged in discriminatory surveillance of homes, selectively targeting Jewish prayer gatherings; engaged in discriminatory application of land use laws to prohibit constructions of sukkahs; and discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting zoning ordinances in 2017 essentially banning yeshivas and dormitories and by enacting other ordinances banning eruvs.

Reina did not return a phone call to The Jewish Link, but sent a statement from the township that said none of the current members of the governing body were on the council at the time the targeted ordinances were adopted.

“While current township officials deny any discriminatory conduct on their watch, the township recognized that the actions of the prior council severely weakened the township’s defense to the state’s claims,” it read. “An adverse verdict would have exposed the township and its taxpayers to significant fines, penalties, attorneys fees and damages.”

The multicultural committee that the township also agreed to establish as part of the settlement will further unite township residents, according to the statement. “The township believes the growing orthodox (sic) community and their growing involvement in township committees and boards demonstrates Jackson Township is a diverse and welcoming community for people of all faiths,” it stated.

Jackson has had a strained relationship with the Orthodox community after many began moving there as nearby Lakewood became more congested. There have been a number of instances of antisemitism, including many cases of swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti and antisemitic postings on social media.

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) settled its lawsuit against Jackson last year 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 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). That case’s consent order also required 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 township is beginning to move past those legal battles in recent years and is becoming more accommodating toward the Orthodox community. Last year a group of yeshivot received planning board approval, 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 township council ended another protracted nine-year legal battle when it approved a settlement months ago that paved the way for a girls high school to be built near its border with Lakewood and reimbursed Oros Bais Yaakov’s $1.35 million legal costs. As part of the settlement it also agreed to change the zoning of the land on which the school is to be built from rural residential to neighborhood commercial and to cooperate and expedite approvals and inspections to speed construction of the high school.


Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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