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Court grants injunction against Jackson laws that targeted Orthodox Jewish community

JACKSON – A federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction against two Jackson ordinances the judge found to be discriminatory against the Orthodox Jewish community.

U.S. District Judge Michael A. Shipp, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, made the preliminary decision regarding the case of Agudath Israel of America and WR Property, LLC, v. Township of Jackson on May 5.

Agudath Israel of America is an organization that advocates for the interests of the Orthodox Jewish community.

WR Property, LLC, is a developer which owns 5 acres in Jackson which was purchased in 2014 for the purpose of developing or marketing it for development for an Orthodox Jewish religious school.

In response to a request for a comment regarding Shipp’s decision, Jackson Business Administrator Terence Wall said “the township will carefully review the court’s decision and determine the best path forward for our entire community.”

The lawsuit was filed over two ordinances that were adopted by the Jackson Township Council in 2017:

• Ordinance 03-17 amended the use of dormitories and schools in various zones throughout Jackson;

• Ordinance 20-17 amended an ordinance which stated that “no person shall encumber or obstruct any street or public place with any article or thing whatsoever.”

In recent years, a growing number of Orthodox Jews have moved to Jackson.

In 2017, Agudath Israel of America initiated legal action after council members adopted the ordinance that prohibits the construction of dormitories in all zoning districts in Jackson.

Although no dormitories had been proposed, municipal officials said they were taking the action because dormitories were not previously addressed in the municipal code.

Agudath Israel of America asserted that the ordinance was enacted to prevent schools for Orthodox Jewish students, and dormitories to house those students, from being constructed in Jackson. The organization claims the ban violates federal law.

The organization amended its complaint later that year after the council took action that members of the Orthodox Jewish community asserted would prevent the establishment of an eruv.

An eruv is an area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within the eruv that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath (Friday night though Saturday sundown).

The preliminary injunction concerns the dormitory ordinance (03-17) and the eruv ordinance (20-17).

In his decision, Shipp discussed the issue of a law (ordinance) being discriminatory on its face and went on to write, “Here, there is no dispute that the ordinances are not facially discriminatory. But ‘facial neutrality is not determinative.’

“As the U.S. Supreme Court explained, ‘The Free Exercise (of religion) Clause … extends beyond facial discrimination. The clause forbids subtle departures from neutrality and covert suppression of particular religious beliefs. Official action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment cannot be shielded by mere compliance with the requirement of facial neutrality. The Free Exercise Clause protects against government hostility which is masked, as well as overt. The Court must survey meticulously the circumstances of governmental categories to eliminate, as it were, religious gerrymanders,’ ” Shipp wrote.

Shipp wrote, “After review, the Court finds that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence in support of their argument that the ordinances were passed with a discriminatory purpose.”

As a result of the ruling, Jackson’s municipal officials and employees are enjoined from enforcing the two ordinances pending a final decision in the matter.

In the interim, the plaintiffs must follow the applicable application procedures for obtaining permits and approvals for the construction of schools and an eruv that were in effect prior to the enactment of the 2017 ordinances, according to Shipp’s ruling.

The plaintiffs claimed Mayor Michael Reina and former councilmen attempted to prevent Orthodox Jews from buying homes in Jackson.

According to the lawsuit, one former councilman allegedly told residents that “the threat (of Orthodox Jews moving to Jackson) can be eliminated if people held their ground and refused the offers being made on their properties and remain committed to Jackson and their neighbors.”

In addition, following a meeting with Reina, one resident commented on social media that “Meet the Mayor was a success. The (Jackson Strong) signs will be great success to let everyone know Don’t Sell, Jackson Strong! The mayor said the key to keeping Jackson the way we all know and love it is to tell your neighbors don’t sell, stay strong.”

In deposition testimony, according to the court’s ruling, former councilman Ken Bressi said several elected officials spoke to him about “ways of stopping the Orthodox Jewish community from moving to Jackson.”

In his deposition Bressi asserted he knows, based on conversation, that several elected officials were affiliated with and acted to further the objectives of the group known as Jackson Strong.

Sieglinde Rath was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs and attorney Donna Marie Jennings represented WR Property, LLC. They could not be reached for comment.

Howard B. Mankoff and Pauline F. Tutelo represented Jackson. They could not be reached for comment.

Reina could not be reached for comment.

– Managing Editor Mark Rosman contributed to this article.

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