Jackson Civil Rights Lawsuit Ends With $575,000 Settlement

Photo by Bob Vosseller

  JACKSON – A civil rights lawsuit alleging the township used zoning and land use authority to discriminate against Orthodox Jewish residents has concluded through a $575,000 settlement.

  New Jersey State Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced details of the settlement that resolves a lawsuit filed accusing Jackson officials of having violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by discriminating against Orthodox Jewish residents through, among other things, the use of zoning and land use powers that made it harder for Orthodox Jews to practice their religion.

  The DCR is the state agency responsible for preventing and eliminating discrimination and bias-based harassment in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation (e.g., places open to the public like schools, businesses, hospitals, etc.).  It also enforces the LAD, the New Jersey Family Leave Act, and the Fair Chance in Housing Act.

  The settlement, which is memorialized in a consent order and approved by the Superior Court, provides broad equitable relief prohibiting the township from discriminating against Orthodox Jews.

  The consent order requires the municipality to adopt new policies and procedures that protect religious freedom and to repeal prior ordinances that discriminated against Orthodox Jewish residents. It also requires ongoing monitoring of Jackson’s compliance with the LAD.

  The $575,000 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 the township violates the consent order.

  DCR’s complaint against the township was filed in 2021 and it alleged that the community adopted discriminatory zoning and land use ordinances and enforcement practices that targeted Jackson’s growing Orthodox Jewish population.

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

  Division on Civil Rights Director Sundeep Iyer said, “religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and we are deeply committed to protecting it here in New Jersey. As hate and bias – including against the Jewish community – continue to rise, it is critical that we call out religious discrimination when we see it, and it is especially important that we hold public officials accountable when they treat people differently based on their faith.”

  “Today’s consent order sends a strong message: We will not tolerate religious discrimination here in New Jersey,” Iyer added.

  According to DCR’s complaint, the township, and its officials and employees allegedly engaged in discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews, selectively targeting communal Jewish prayer gatherings; engaged in discriminatory application of land use laws to inhibit the erection of sukkahs – temporary open-air structures constructed to mark Sukkot, a weeklong Jewish holiday; and discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting zoning ordinances in 2017 that essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories.

  It also states that the municipality discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting a zoning ordinance in 2017 that targeted and effectively banned the creation of eruvim, which are symbolic, boundary-defined areas in which observant Orthodox Jews are permitted to engage in certain activities otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath and during the holiday of Yom Kippur.

  The DCR’s consent order includes that Jackson agrees that all of the township’s powers, policies, laws, and practices affecting land use and zoning comply with the LAD. Additionally, and pursuant to the consent order, the township is permanently enjoined from discriminating against any residents or prospective residents of the township on the basis of protected characteristics under the LAD.

  Jackson Township will be required to notify the DCR of any decision, policy, practice, rulemaking, or vote that may affect religious land use within the community or the free exercise of religion within the township, including, but not limited to, sukkahs, schools, dormitories, eruvim, or the ability of Orthodox Jewish people to freely exercise their religious beliefs and practices.

  The DCR will have the opportunity to object to any such decision, policy, practice, rulemaking, or vote and the township agreed to repeal zoning ordinances that were allegedly enacted to prevent Orthodox Jews from establishing religious schools and eruvim in the municipality.

  That also includes the publishing of a written description of the township’s permitting requirements and procedures for sukkahs.

  The consent order also includes several additional remedial measures such as establishing a $150,000 restitution fund for the purpose of compensating any person who has been harmed by the conduct alleged in DCR’s complaint against the Township.

  Individuals who believe they have been harmed can contact the DCR at JacksonRestitutionFund@njcivilrights.gov.

  Jackson Township will be monitored by the DCR for its compliance with the consent order for three years and will share with DCR any complaint brought to the township that alleges discrimination in zoning or land use law.

  The community will also have to establish a multicultural committee, comprised of residents, which will work in partnership with the township to address issues impacting Orthodox Jewish residents and to combat other discriminatory behavior within Jackson.

  This committee will represent and reflect the demographics of the Township and will create a public education campaign and organize community events to promote diversity and cultural and religious sensitivity. It will meet quarterly and provide reports to the township and DCR.

  Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina and other elected officials, and staff of the Jackson Township Council, Jackson Township Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the Jackson Township Planning Board, will undergo training on discrimination in land use and zoning. They will also attend DCR trainings annually during the three-year term of the consent order.

  Mayor Reina, Council President Steve Chisholm and Township Attorney Gregory McGuckin were contacted for comment for this story.  Township Business Administrator Terence Wall issued a statement on behalf of the township stating that responds to the matter which involved a six-year investigation and two and a half years of litigation regarding allegations dating back to nearly a decade ago.

  The statement notes that Superior Court Judge Mark Troncone signed a 26-page consent order which outlines the terms of the settlement.  “The lawsuit stemmed from the run up and passage of ordinances by the township council in 2017 which allegedly discriminated against members of the Jewish Orthodox community.”

  “Not one member of the current Council who authorized the resolution of the matter held office at the time the challenged ordinances were adopted,” the statement added.  “The ordinances attempted to ban private schools and other religious activities in response to antisemitic comments from members of the public demanding the township try to stop the influx of Orthodox Jews moving into the community.”

  The statement adds that “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.”

  “As adverse verdict at trial would have exposed the township and its taxpayers to significant fines, penalties, attorneys’ fees and damages. Pursuant to the settlement, the township will establish a victims restitution fund and pay an agreed upon penalty similar to its settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.  The township will also establish a multi-cultural committee that will work to further unite the residents of Jackson Township,” the response states.

  The state adds that township officials believe that “the growing orthodox community and their involvement in township committees and boards demonstrates that Jackson Township is a diverse and welcoming community for people of all faiths.”