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U.S. settles lawsuit against Jackson for discriminatory ordinances targeting Orthodox Jewish religious schools

The U.S. Justice Department has announced an agreement with Jackson Township and the Jackson Township Planning Board to settle allegations that those bodies violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when they passed and applied a series of discriminatory zoning ordinances that intentionally targeted the Orthodox Jewish community by prohibiting religious schools and associated dormitories in the municipality.

The settlement was announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of New Jersey in a press release dated June 15.

The proposed consent order, which was filed on June 15 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey and must still be approved by the court, would resolve a lawsuit the United States filed in May 2020 alleging that the Township Council and the Planning Board in Jackson passed zoning ordinances that broadly prohibited religious schools and banned schools with dormitories, both of which are important to providing religious education within the Orthodox Jewish community, according to the press release.

The federal government’s complaint alleged that the intent of the ordinances was to prevent Orthodox Jewish schools from opening in the township and thereby dissuade members of that community from living in or moving to Jackson.

“RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act protect the rights of religious communities to worship and obtain housing in communities free from discrimination and unequal treatment,” said Philip R. Sellinger, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

“This office remains steadfast in its commitment to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, and as the proposed consent order demonstrates, we will continue to take steps to protect the civil rights of the Orthodox Jewish community and all communities throughout this district,” Sellinger said.

“Zoning restrictions that intentionally target religious communities have no place in our society,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“Federal civil rights laws provide strong protections to ensure that religious communities are treated equally and not subjected to discrimination because of their beliefs.

“This resolution reaffirms that members of the Orthodox Jewish community, as with people of all faiths, are welcome in our communities and have the right to practice their religion free of discrimination,” Clarke said.

The complaint alleges that in 2017, Jackson’s Township Council members enacted two ordinances that banned dormitories and severely restricted where religious schools could locate, according to the press release.

Those ordinances were enacted in response to the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in Jackson and surrounding areas and amid public comments arguing that the ordinances should be enacted to prevent the Orthodox Jewish community from living in or moving to Jackson. Township Council members voted unanimously to enact the ordinances, according to the press release.

The consent order requires Jackson officials to repeal the remaining active discriminatory ordinance and to replace it with an ordinance that will allow religious elementary and secondary schools, religious higher learning institutions and religious residential schools.

The consent order also requires that the new zoning ordinance treat religious schools equally with non-religious institutions that operate in Jackson, according to the press release.

The consent order requires Jackson to train its officials and employees on the requirements of RLUIPA and the FHA, to establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA and FHA complaints, to pay a civil penalty of $45,000 and to pay $150,000 into a settlement fund from which aggrieved persons can seek payment, according to the press release.

In a press release issued by the municipality, Jackson officials said that under the terms of the settlement agreement, the township does not concede liability with respect to the claims alleged in the federal government’s lawsuit and has committed to a series of actions to ensure compliance with all laws governing religious rights in land use and fair housing practices.

“This Township Council welcomes and embraces people of all faiths, races and ethnic backgrounds,” Mayor Michael Reina was quoted as saying in the township’s press release. “It is time for Jackson to move forward. This governing body is committed to ensuring we will do just that in order to foster one united community, respectful of all people who call Jackson home.”

Specific details of the settlement will not be released until the agreement is fully executed by the Department of Justice and signed by the court. All land use changes introduced in
the future will be subject to public review and comment before adoption, according to municipal officials.

The settlement agreement will remain in effect for three years once executed by the Department of Justice. The township and the department may seek to terminate parts of the agreement, or the entire agreement, prior to the expiration period if Jackson can
demonstrate it has established “full, effective and lasting compliance” with parts of the agreement or the entire agreement, according to the press release.

By entering into the settlement agreement, the township does not concede liability with respect to the claims alleged in the federal government’s lawsuit, meaning the township does not admit any wrongdoing on behalf of the township or any of its officials, according to the press release.

“By settling this matter, the township retains control over its planning and zoning functions instead of running the risk of ceding control of those essential functions to the court,” Reina said. “The settlement also gives us the opportunity to ensure that our planning and zoning framework complies with all controlling federal and state laws. And, very importantly, the settlement allows us to put an end to this costly and lengthy litigation.”

Related legal actions in matters concerning the Orthodox Jewish community, including a complaint filed by the Attorney General of New Jersey and, separately, by a private party, remain pending for Jackson, according to the township’s press release.

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