(RNS) — A New Jersey township accused of discriminatory zoning policies and surveillance against Orthodox Jews has reached a $575,000 settlement with the state, the New Jersey attorney general announced Monday (Aug. 28).
The order prohibits Jackson Township officials from discriminatory zoning and from discriminating against religious assemblies. The Orthodox Jewish community in Jackson Township wanted to build religious schools and places of worship.
The town will be required to pay $275,000 in penalties, plus $150,000 toward a restitution fund for those harmed by the town and another $150,000 if they violate the consent order.
“No one in New Jersey should face discrimination for their religious beliefs,” Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a press release. “The settlement announced today is a powerful testament to our commitment to protecting residents’ right to religious freedom.”
The Orthodox Union, an organization that supports Orthodox synagogues, welcomed the settlement. In a statement to Religion News Service, Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy, noted that over two decades ago, the Orthodox Union joined a coalition of faith organizations advocating against local governments’ discriminatory use of zoning and land use laws, an effort that resulted in the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“We are grateful that the New Jersey Attorney General and the Division of Civil Rights — with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice — took action against the Jackson Township government for engaging in this kind of discrimination against Orthodox Jews who sought nothing more than to reside as good citizens in Jackson,” said Diament. “We appreciate that the settlement provides both compensation to those who were wronged and puts measures in place to ensure such hateful actions are not repeated.”
In April 2021, New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights filed a complaint against Jackson Township, its zoning board, township planning board and mayor, alleging that they had violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
According to the 2021 complaint, a group of Jackson residents began complaining about the influx of Orthodox Jewish residents as early as 2015.
“Residents wrote to Township officials raising alarm about an ‘extremist religious group’ seeking to ‘take over our town’ and ‘destroy our neighborhoods.’ Residents amplified these grievances through social media with hateful rhetoric, saying that ‘the gang war has begun’ and ‘[w]e need to get rid of them like Hitler did,’” according to the complaint.
In 2016, the complaint says, the town adopted a surveillance plan to monitor homes where Orthodox Jewish residents were allegedly gathering for Shabbat. The plan resulted in “regular, often daily home monitoring” of suspected congregations. The complaint alleges the town devoted significant resources toward surveillance of these lawful prayer meetings for several years.
The complaint also alleges that the town reinterpreted existing laws to inhibit the erection of sukkahs, temporary open-air structures used during the festival of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles. In 2017, the township unanimously passed an ordinance that the complaint says prohibited religious schools in almost all the town’s zoning districts. The ordinance also prohibited dormitories, which some Orthodox Jews believe are necessary for yeshiva students.
“Jackson officials were aware of the Ordinance’s discriminatory impact, which effectively bans both religious day schools and yeshivas in Jackson,” the complaint says.
The complaint attests that the town also prohibited eruvim, ritual enclosures usually created by attaching wire or string between poles that symbolically extend private spaces into public spaces. Some Orthodox Jews use eruvim to designate spaces where they are permitted to take part in activities (such as carrying items from a private to public space) that would otherwise be prohibited on Yom Kippur or the Sabbath. The complaint alleges that in 2017, the town began a campaign to ban eruvim by enforcing a township code that prohibits items that “encumber or obstruct” public areas and streets. In September of that year, the town council passed an ordinance that the complaint said was “effectively prohibiting eruvim.”
In agreeing to the settlement, the town does not concede liability for the claims included in the 2021 complaint. However, the settlement does require the town to publish a description of its permitting requirements for sukkahs and to repeal and replace zoning ordinances that allegedly blocked Orthodox Jews from opening religious schools and from establishing eruvim. The town must also establish a multicultural committee to draft recommendations to the town’s council and create a public education campaign aimed at ending discrimination and bias within the town.
The town is required to notify the Division on Civil Rights of any policies or decisions that could impact the free exercise of religion or religious land use and must submit to ongoing monitoring of its compliance with New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The mayor and other officials implicated in the order must participate in annual trainings on discrimination in land use and zoning.
This isn’t the first time a New Jersey town has faced a lawsuit for discriminating against its Orthodox Jewish residents. In January, an Orthodox Jewish school in Jackson Township received a $1.35 million settlement from the town after Jackson’s zoning officials prevented the Congregation of Oros Bais Yaakov from building an all-girls school for nearly a decade. Three years earlier, Woodcliff Lake, a town 90 minutes north of Jackson Township, settled a lawsuit with an Orthodox Jewish group that said the town repeatedly blocked it from expanding its building.
“Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and we are deeply committed to protecting it here in New Jersey,” said Sundeep Iyer, director of the Division on Civil Rights, in a press release. “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.”