JACKSON – Municipal officials in Jackson have responded to a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) after the federal government filed a lawsuit against the township.
The government’s lawsuit against Jackson Township and the Jackson Planning Board 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 DOJ announced the lawsuit in a May 20 press release.
The government’s complaint alleges the 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 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 May 26 Township Council meeting, council Vice President Alex Sauickie said Jackson officials were unaware of the lawsuit prior to the issuance of the government’s press release.
“This announcement was as much of a surprise to the governing body as much as it was full of factual inaccuracies. It was a surprise because the attorneys representing Jackson have been in contact with the DOJ and requested an opportunity to respond to those inaccuracies before any suit was filed and the DOJ agreed to have that dialogue. They apparently changed their mind and filed suit without giving Jackson a chance to respond,” Sauickie said.
During a meeting on May 12, council members introduced an ordinance which would repeal a 2017 municipal law that bans dormitories in Jackson. The ordinance was scheduled for a public hearing and possible vote for adoption during the May 26 meeting.
“With respect to the factual inaccuracies of the DOJ press release and the subsequent complaints applied by the DOJ to the township, as Township Attorney (Greg) McGuckin mentioned at our last council meeting, in the history of Jackson there has never been an application for a dormitory. Therefore, there have been no approvals, nor denials, nor any party negatively impacted by ordinances in place regarding dormitories in Jackson,” Sauickie said.
He said any applicant who wanted to construct a dormitory had the ability to go before the proper land use board (Planning Board or Zoning Board of Adjustment) for review.
“They had that ability now, they had it in 2018, 2016, and all the years before that. The ordinance that was enacted in 2017 was simply redundant legislation and the town is on record to take steps to clean up that redundant legislation before, not as a result of, the past week’s DOJ press release and subsequent complaint,” Sauickie said.
The council vice president said the federal government’s lawsuit and press release negatively brand Jackson “without having given Jackson an opportunity to represent itself.”
He said the heart of the complaint revolves around land use laws, protecting the township against over-development, protecting the environment and guiding how a municipality should develop.
“Along with that, in every way you measure the quality of life of a municipality, Jackson far exceeds its peers, especially in a state that fails so miserably,” Sauickie said.
The government’s complaint also alleges that the township and the Planning Board enacted the 2017 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.
Sauickie said in a 2019 FBI survey regarding hate crimes, Jackson was ranked No. 165 out of 172 municipalities with one hate crime.
“Jackson is approaching 60,000 residents and we had one hate crime reported and our police department solved that crime and brought the offenders to justice,” he said.
“To set the record straight, Jackson has dozens of religions practicing within its borders, with dozens to thousands of families of each of those religions, including an estimated 10% of the population being Orthodox Jewish families already living in Jackson.
“In the last 10 years there has been one application for a religious institution and it was approved. The one religious school application that was denied was denied for improper land use and was upheld in New Jersey Superior Court.
“Jackson passed a resolution to allow eruvs on utility poles, that is in practice today, and during the past few years the mayor has named several residents, including Orthodox Jewish residents, as chaplains of Jackson,” Sauickie said.
On May 26, the first ordinance that was expected to be considered for adoption would repeal a 2017 ordinance that prohibits dormitories anywhere in Jackson. The second ordinance that was expected to be considered for adoption would repeal a 2017 ordinance that prohibits schools in certain zones in Jackson.
The ordinance which proposed repealing the 2017 law that prohibits dormitories anywhere in Jackson was adopted in a 4-0 vote from Sauickie, Councilman Andrew Kern, Councilman Martin Flemming and Councilman Ken Bressi.
The ordinance which proposed repealing the 2017 law that prohibits schools in certain zones in Jackson was tabled.
Sauickie said that “given the numerous factual inaccuracies in the DOJ press release and complaint, we now feel there is too much uncertainty in the DOJ’s understanding about what is going on in Jackson. Therefore, we are going to table (the ordinance) until June 23.”
He said the attorneys who represent both parties may meet to discuss the issues.
“We hope the DOJ will meet with our attorneys with an open mind and when they realize the inaccuracies in their documents, will quickly and publicly correct them.
“While this governing body inherited these concerns, we will not allow Jackson, a town that is inviting to all, which has been attacked for the last several years by outside entities and has never been given the opportunity to tell its side of the story, to be branded so negatively with a broad brush.
“Should there not be amicable discussions with our attorneys in the next few weeks, we will go no further and Jackson will have our day in court to fight these allegations.
“Jackson is a town where all residents can practice their faith … All children growing up in our town will feel like they live in a great town and our 2020 governing body will ensure that happens,” Sauickie said.