JACKSON – The township is being sued again.
The community is already facing several lawsuits regarding development issues involving the Orthodox Jewish community and it was reported on May 20, that the Justice Department filed their own lawsuit against Jackson.
It alleges that officials implemented zoning ordinances that intentionally restrict the operation of religious schools and housing associated with such schools, including religious boarding schools known as yeshivas, required by the Orthodox Jewish community.
The complaint alleges that Jackson officials passed two ordinances, and the planning board applied those ordinances in a manner that discriminated against the Orthodox Jewish community, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
Both ordinances expressly prohibit dormitories throughout Jackson, making it impossible for religious boarding schools such as Orthodox Jewish yeshivas to be built there. While Jackson passed these ordinances to prevent dormitories anywhere in the township, the suit states that the planning board has since approved, without requiring a variance, the plans for two nonreligious projects with dormitory-type housing.
The Jackson Council introduced a measure during its May 12, meeting to repeal the two 2017 ordinances that pertain to dormitories and specific zoning for where schools can be built. A public hearing on the repeal of those two ordinances will be held during the council’s May 26 meeting.
The ordinances were described by township officials and by Township Attorney Gregory McGuckin as being redundant and unnecessary as the cause of why they were now being repealed. It was noted that the ordinances could put the township in a vulnerable legal position during the May 12 meeting.
“I have not yet seen the lawsuit so I can’t comment on it,” McGuckin said when asked May 20 for a comment on behalf of the township.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said “religious discrimination has no place in our society and runs counter to the founding principles of our nation. No religious community should ever face unlawful barriers or be singled out for inferior treatment. This complaint reflects our continued commitment to combat discrimination and unequal treatment.”
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said “using zoning laws to target Orthodox Jewish individuals for intentional discrimination and exclude them from a community is illegal and utterly incompatible with this Nation’s values. Let me be clear. The Department of Justice will use the full force of its authority to stop such anti-Semitic conduct and prevent its recurrence.”
The complaint also alleges that the township and planning board enacted the ordinances “with respect to religious dormitories against a backdrop of extreme animus by Jackson residents and township decision makers toward the Orthodox Jewish community and a movement by residents to keep Orthodox Jewish community members from settling in Jackson.”
According to the complaint, the township and planning board’s actions towards the Orthodox Jewish community violate RLUIPA’s non-discrimination and equal terms provisions, as well as the FHA. RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.
In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information concerning RLUIPA available at justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.
The Department of Justice announced in July 2018, the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Horan Florio of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Unit, and Trial Attorney Beth Frank, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.