JACKSON – Township Council members approved a settlement agreement between the municipality and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). The federal government had alleged that officials engaged in religious discrimination in the township’s zoning practices.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the township does not concede liability with respect to the claims alleged in the DOJ’s lawsuit and has committed to a series of actions to ensure compliance with all laws governing religious rights in land use and fair housing practices.
Mayor Michael Reina said in a prepared statement, “this Township Council welcomes and embraces people of all faiths, races and ethnic backgrounds. It’s time for Jackson Township to move forward. This governing body is committed to ensuring that we will do just that in order to foster one, united community, respectful of all people who call Jackson home.”
Specific details of the settlement will not be released until the agreement is fully executed by the DOJ and signed by the court. All land use changes introduced in the future will be subject to public review and comment before adoption. Settlement highlights, per the terms of the agreement with the DOJ, include the following actions, which the township is committed to undertaking.
The Township will:
- Repeal the remaining discriminatory ordinance and replace it with an ordinance that will allow religious elementary and secondary schools, religious higher learning institutions, and religious residential schools. The new zoning ordinance must treat religious schools equally with non-religious institutions that operate in the township.
- Ensure all land use regulations comply with federal and state laws, and will amend or introduce ordinances that permit schools with dormitories as an accessory to private, parochial and public schools in certain zoning districts.
- Provide notice about the township’s active engagement in the settlement agreement, and about the requirements of the agreement, to its officers, elected and appointed officials, contractors, employees and agents, the public and all other interested parties.
- Provide training on the requirements of the settlement agreement, as well as the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), to all township officers, elected and appointed officials, contractors, employees and agents whose duties relate to planning, zoning, permitting, construction, code enforcement and building occupancy;
- Submit reports to the DOJ detailing the township’s compliance with terms of the settlement agreement, per agreed upon details and timelines for submission.
- Notify the DOJ about any amendments or modifications to the township’s zoning code, rules, laws or ordinances that affect land uses for schools, residential schools, houses of worship or other religious uses;
- Retain all land use, law enforcement and associated records directly related to or coming from members of the Orthodox community;
- Allow for the inspections and copy of all non-privileged township records by the DOJ upon reasonable notice.
- Develop a written process to address complaints by any person who believes the township and/or any of its political subdivisions or departments may have violated religious and/or fair housing laws.
- Establish a settlement fund to be administered by the DOJ with all determinations made by the DOJ with funds totaling $150,000 for the purpose of compensating aggrieved persons who have suffered as a result of alleged discriminatory actions by the township; and provide notice to the public about the establishment of the fund.
- The township will pay a civil penalty of $45,000 to the DOJ as part of the settlement agreement.
The settlement agreement will remain in effect for three years once executed by DOJ. Both the township and DOJ may seek to terminate parts of the agreement, or the entire agreement, prior to the expiration period if the township can demonstrate that it has established “full, effective and lasting compliance” with either parts of the agreement or the entire agreement.
If the DOJ determines that Jackson failed to satisfy these terms, the settlement term may be extended.
The mayor said, “by settling this matter, the township retains control over its planning and zoning functions instead of running the risk of ceding control of those essential functions to the court.”
Mayor Reina added, “the settlement also gives us the opportunity to ensure that our planning and zoning framework complies with all controlling federal and state laws and, very importantly, the settlement allows us to put an end to this costly and lengthy litigation.”
The DOJ’s Division of Civil Rights filed suit against Jackson Township on May 20, 2020.
According to a DOJ statement, “the Jackson Planning Board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when they passed and applied a series of discriminatory zoning ordinances that intentionally targeted the Orthodox Jewish community by prohibiting religious schools and associated dormitories.”
The complaint alleged that the intent of the ordinances was to prevent Orthodox Jewish schools from opening in the township and thereby dissuade members of that community from living in or moving to Jackson.
“RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act protect the rights of religious communities to worship and obtain housing in communities free from discrimination and unequal treatment,” Philip R. Sellinger, United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, said.
He added, “this office remains steadfast in its commitment to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, and as the proposed consent order demonstrates, we will continue to take steps to protect the civil rights of the Orthodox Jewish community and all communities throughout this district.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clark of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “zoning restrictions that intentionally target religious communities have no place in our society.”
“Federal civil rights laws provide strong protections to ensure that religious communities are treated equally and not subjected to discrimination because of their beliefs,” she added.