JACKSON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the township for using zoning powers to exclude and discriminate against members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Specifically, he said the township authorities violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by making it harder for Orthodox Jews to practice their religion and to deter them from moving there.
Mayor Reina and members of the governing body have denied prior allegations of anti-Semitic bias involved with any decisions concerning the introduction or passage of ordinances regarding development or enforcement of existing zoning regulations.
State Alleges Bias
The State’s complaint alleges the township’s adoption of certain zoning ordinances was discriminatory and enforcement practices was motivated in part by officials’ desire to appease Township residents who reacted to the Township’s growing Orthodox Jewish population by expressing hate and fear on social media, in complaints to Township officials, and in public meetings.
Grewal said the lawsuit was filed “because bias and hate have no home in New Jersey, and we will not allow some vocal residents’ intolerance to drive local government decisions. Like all public servants, municipal officials have a duty to uphold the law, not weaponize it against specific groups because of what they believe or how they worship.”
According to a release by the AG’s Office, the lawsuit states “some residents have amplified their views in hateful social media posts, which have included statements like “we need to get rid of them like Hitler did” and “filthy f’ing cockroaches.”
The State also alleges that some Jackson officials sympathized with residents’ anger and fear that Jackson was “becoming a subdivision of Lakewood.”
During recent township council meetings, residents have come before the council calling for better enforcement of township zoning rules citing examples of “prayer houses” which have been operating in neighborhoods in Jackson and are in violation of township code.
Details Of The Complaint
The four-count complaint was filed on behalf of AG Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) in state Superior Court in Ocean County. It names as defendants Jackson Township, the Jackson Township Council, the Jackson Township Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Jackson Township Planning Board, and in his official capacity, Mayor Michael Reina.
The suit accuses officials of having devised plans to create and enforce rules that would put limitations on religious observances of Orthodox Jews in Jackson. It cited a social media post by a former Zoning Board member who posted to Facebook “the tsunami of orthodoxy that is mounting at the border.”
Through ordinances and enforcement actions, the complaint alleges, Township officials exploited its power to regulate land use and housing to disrupt vital aspects of Orthodox Jewish life in Jackson and to interfere with the ability of observant Orthodox Jews to live there.
Jackson Township is accused by the state of employing four strategies to target aspects of Orthodox Jewish religious practice. They include officials allegedly engaged in targeted and discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews suspected of hosting communal prayer gatherings.
Jackson’s zoning code requires permits for places of worship, but there are constitutional limits on municipalities’ ability to use their zoning authority to restrict the free exercise of religion, and government officials cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.
The State’s complaint also alleges that the Township dedicated significant resources to monitoring the homes of Orthodox Jews, at the direction of Mayor Reina and others, even after officials warned that taxpayer funds and government resources were being wasted and that officials were not finding significant code violations.
The complaint states Mayor Reina allegedly said if these were churches instead of Orthodox Jewish places of worship, he would “absolutely not” be fighting them in the same manner.
Another allegation against Jackson officials is that they were engaging in discriminatory application of land use laws to inhibit the erection of sukkahs by the Township’s Jewish residents, particularly in their front yards. Sukkahs are temporary open-air structures constructed to mark Sukkot, a weeklong Jewish holiday celebrating the fall harvest.
Residents began to question and complain about the appearance of sukkahs and according to the complaint, Jackson officials modified their interpretation of a local ordinance to effectively prohibit sukkahs in front yards thus the new enforcement policy discriminated against Jewish residents.
Jackson officials allegedly discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting zoning ordinances in 2017 that essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories, where yeshiva students typically reside so as to avoid the distractions of secular life.
According to the complaint, as Jackson officials were considering whether to effectively prohibit religious schools, a former member of the Zoning Board warned Mayor Reina that “Jackson will be sued and it will cost the taxpayers dearly to defend the ordinance, potentially millions.”
The last complaint alleges that Jackson discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting a 2017 zoning ordinance that targeted and effectively banned the creation of eruvim – symbolic, boundary-defined areas in which observant Orthodox Jews are permitted to engage in certain activities otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) and during the holiday of Yom Kippur. The boundaries of an eruv are often marked by affixing plastic strips known as “lechis” to utility poles.
These polices and enforcement actions allegedly reflects Township officials’ acquiescence to – and often solidarity with – anti-Orthodox-Jewish bias voiced by certain residents about Orthodox Jews including that they “refuse to assimilate” and that they will “destroy our neighborhoods” according to the complaint.
Of the State’s four allegations, the one involving the allegedly discriminatory enactment of ordinances barring yeshivas and their dormitories – overlaps with allegations in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against Jackson Township in May 2020.
The federal lawsuit alleges that the Township approved the ordinances, and the planning board has 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 and the Fair Housing Act.
The State is calling on the court to find that each of the challenged zoning practices are violations of the law against discrimination, to issue an order prohibiting Jackson’s discrimination against the Orthodox Jewish community, and to impose civil penalties, among other relief.
Social Media Problems
Mayor Reina, and former Councilmen Robert Nixon and Barry Cologero each addressed attendees at various council meetings of the past, denouncing misinformation and false accusations made on social media.
The suit notes Jackson residents posted to the Facebook page called Rise Up Ocean County. Facebook eventually removed the page from its platform in early 2020 for violating the company’s community standards for hate speech.