JACKSON – New Jersey law enforcement officials have filed an unlawful discrimination lawsuit against Jackson in which they claim that “in the exercise of the township’s power to regulate land use and housing, (Jackson officials) have unlawfully discriminated on the basis of creed against residents and prospective residents who are Orthodox Jews, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.”
The lawsuit was announced in a press release from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office on April 27.
According to the lawsuit, the case seeks to remedy unlawful discrimination by Jackson’s municipal government, including the Township Council, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Planning Board and Mayor Michael Reina.
The lawsuit states that since about 2015, a vocal group of Jackson residents has complained to the township about the number of Orthodox Jews who have been moving to Jackson. These complaints often expressed a generalized animus against Orthodox Jewish people, culture and religious practice.
State officials said “residents amplified these grievances through social media with hateful rhetoric.” Residents complained Jackson would become a “subdivision of Lakewood,” a neighboring municipality that is home to more than 50,000 Orthodox Jewish residents.
The lawsuit alleges that certain township officials have openly sympathized with these grievances.
The state’s complaint alleges that “township officials also have pursued a series of policy and enforcement strategies responsive to residents’ complaints and religious animus. These strategies have included the discriminatory enactment of zoning ordinances targeting Orthodox Jews, and the discriminatory enforcement of code provisions in ways that have targeted Orthodox Jews.”
According to the lawsuit, the defendants have exercised their zoning authority to enact ordinances for the purpose of deterring Orthodox Jews from building and operating religious schools and the dormitories associated with those schools in Jackson.
The state is seeking an injunction prohibiting the township’s alleged ongoing discriminatory zoning practices.
In a statement provided to the Tri-Town News, Township Administrator Terence Wall said, “Jackson is surprised to learn of the filing of a lawsuit by the state. Nearly a year ago the township provided thousands of documents to the state in response to their requests for information.
“The township went out of its way to provide whatever they asked for and we have not heard from them since. Instead we learn they simply filed suit and issued a press release,” the administrator said.
Wall said Jackson’s taxpayers will be required to pay the cost of litigation.
“Before one level of government decides to sue another, we would think it would be in the best interests of the taxpayers for the parties to at least sit-down and attempt to resolve any issues or review any facts which may be in dispute.
“For whatever reason, the state chose not to do so here. Now, state and local taxpayers will be forced to pay the costs of litigation. Jackson is a community of over 60,000 residents, including members of nearly every faith, and the township will defend itself appropriately,” Wall said.
Township Attorney Greg McGuckin said he would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with representatives of the Attorney General’s office.
“They never once reached out to advise us of the concerns they had or (if) there could be any kind of a non-court resolution,” he said.
The state’s lawsuit against Jackson was a topic for public comment during the April 27 meeting of the Township Council.
Resident Mordechai Burnstein said, “I would strongly urge our leaders in town to make whatever efforts are possible to try to find some reasonable accommodation to work these issues out together with the plaintiffs.”
Richard Ciullo of Seaside Heights said, “With regard to the state’s action today, I think you (township officials) made an observation that is critically important, which is that at no point in time did anybody in the Attorney General’s office reach out to any legal authority or governing body member asking for dialogue prior to the filing.”
Ciullo said he does not want to see Jackson become the town in the United States that sets a record for the largest settlement in a religious discrimination lawsuit.
Resident Tzvi Herman, who serves on the Jackson School District Board of Education, said there are two issues at hand: the potential cost of litigation and what is inside the litigation.
“There is a large community (of Orthodox Jews) here that obviously feels they are missing certain essential services to practice their freedoms. There have been rules and ordinances put on the books in the last few years and we have been promised that as soon as a new council comes in they will be repealed,” Herman said.