JACKSON – The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Jackson Township and the Jackson Planning Board which alleges those municipal bodies implemented zoning ordinances that intentionally restrict the operation of religious schools and housing associated with such schools, including religious boarding schools known as yeshivas, as required by the Orthodox Jewish community.
The Justice Department made the announcement in a May 20 press release.
On May 21, Township Council President Alex Sauickie said municipal officials had seen the press release from the Department of Justice, but had not received the government’s formal complaint.
“We saw the press release, however, we have not received the formal complaint as of today. While we feel there were clearly factual inaccuracies in the press release, and the town was not given an opportunity to present our side of things, we cannot comment any further until we have an opportunity to review the complaint,” Sauickie said.
The government’s complaint alleges the Jackson Township Council adopted two ordinances and the Planning Board applied those ordinances in a manner that discriminated against the Orthodox Jewish community in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), according to the press release.
Both municipal ordinances expressly prohibit dormitories throughout Jackson, making it impossible for religious boarding schools such as Orthodox Jewish yeshivas to establish themselves in the municipality, according to the press release.
Although Jackson officials adopted the ordinances to prevent dormitories anywhere in Jackson, the Planning Board has since approved, without requiring a variance, plans for two non-religious projects with dormitory-type housing (Jackson Adventure Crossing and Trophy Park, both on Route 537), according to the press release.
During a recent meeting, Township Council members introduced two ordinances that propose repealing the 2017 dormitory ordinances referred to in the government’s action. The council may take final action on those ordinances during its May 26 meeting.
“Religious discrimination has no place in our society and runs counter to the founding principles of our nation,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said. “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.”
“Using zoning laws to target Orthodox Jewish individuals for intentional discrimination and to exclude them from a community is illegal and utterly incompatible with this nation’s values,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
“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,” Dreibland said.
The federal government’s complaint also alleges that the township and the 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 Jews from settling in Jackson, according to the press release.
The complaint alleges that the township and the Planning Board’s actions toward 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, according to the press release.