On Wednesday, May 20, 2020 the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Jackson Township, New Jersey alleging the township illegally discriminated against Orthodox Jews through zoning laws that restricted religious schools and outlawed dormitories, intending to keep Orthodox Jews from moving to Jackson.
The lawsuit charges that Jackson Township both passed and applied the ordinances in a manner that discriminated against the Orthodox Jewish community. Both ordinances expressly prohibit dormitories throughout Jackson, making it impossible for religious boarding schools such as Orthodox Jewish yeshivas to operate there, thus violating portions of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Incidentally, the Agudah- led by its Washington director Rabbi Abba Cohen- was at the forefront of the effort to pass RLUIPA in 2000.
The lawsuit pointed out that although Jackson passed these ordinances to prevent dormitories anywhere in Jackson, the planning board has since approved, without requiring a variance, the plans for two nonreligious projects with dormitory-type housing. Furthering the case against the embattled township are a host of anti-Semitic comments made by officials within the governing body of Jackson. The Department of Justice charged the ordinances were enacted “against a backdrop of extreme animus by some Jackson residents and township decision makers toward the Orthodox Jewish community and a movement by residents to keep Orthodox Jewish individuals from settling in Jackson.”
“Religious discrimination has no place in our society and runs counter to the founding principles of our nation,” said Craig Carpenito, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “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.”
Echoing his statements was Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “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,” he said. Dreiband then warned other townships to take note: “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.”
Roman P. Storzer, attorney for Agudah in a parallel action challenging Jackson Township’s laws and counsel in a number of similar lawsuits in central N.J., applauded the Department of Justice’s involvement: “It is critical that these important rights, entrenched in the First Amendment and federal law, continue to be protected wherever they are threatened.”
Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudah’s New Jersey Office was particularly grateful to the United States Department of Justice and Attorney General William Barr. “During Agudah’s annual mission to Washington last year, we met with top officials in the Justice Department including Attorney General Barr,” recalled Rabbi Schnall, “during the meeting, we raised concerns that as the tzibbur continues to grow and we move out of the predominantly frum enclaves, towns would hide behind zoning codes to keep us from settling in. The Attorney General, who has been an unrelenting fighter for religious liberties, assured us that his Justice Department would do everything it could to ensure American citizens are not ‘zoned out’ of neighborhoods because of their faith through its Religious Liberties Task Force. This lawsuit serves as a yet another shining example Attorney General Barr’s commitment.”
Veteran activists within Agudath Israel pointed out that almost three decades ago, at the 1992 dinner, a young Attorney General named William Barr, then serving in his first stint as Attorney General under the George H.W. Bush administration was honored with the Humanitarian Award. The reason for the honor, as then-President Rabbi Moshe Sherer noted in his speech, was Attorney General Barr’s decision to file a civil suit against Airmont for creating zoning laws with the intent to hamper the growth of the frum community in Monsey.
Close to 30 years later, the characters may have changed while the script stayed the same. Then, it was a village in upstate New York, today it is a township in central New Jersey. The intent, though, is all the same: To keep Orthodox Jews out. Through it all, Agudath Israel has been at the forefront of our community’s needs, advocating at the highest levels of government and now, as then, Agudath Israel is grateful a man as committed to religious liberty as Attorney General William P. Barr is leading the United States Department of Justice.