Jackson Township officials “weaponized” zoning laws against Orthodox Jews, making it difficult for them to practice their religion while discouraging others from moving in, state authorities charged Tuesday.
Mayor Michael Reina and members of the township council, planning board and zoning board of adjustment devised the anti-Semitic scheme to stop what a former official called “the tsunami of orthodoxy that is mounting at the border," alleges a lawsuit filed by the state.
The group was trying to appease a number of intolerant residents who complained to them at public meetings and in hateful social media posts about the expansion of the Orthodox Jewish population in town, the suit filed by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights says.
The lengths to which township officials went exhibited “solidarity” with the bias of certain residents that Orthodox Jews “refuse to assimilate” and will “destroy our neighborhoods,” it says.
The suit points to one of the most blatant examples of public bias: a Facebook page for a group called Rise Up Ocean County.
After receiving a request from Grewal’s office to monitor the page, Facebook removed it last year for violating the company’s community standards for hate speech.
“Bias and hate have no home in New Jersey, and we will not allow some vocal residents’ intolerance to drive local government decisions,” Grewal said Tuesday in announcing the suit.
Jackson Township borders Lakewood, a municipality that’s home to more than 50,000 Orthodox Jews, as well as the second-largest yeshiva in the world.
Beginning around 2015, a vocal group of Jackson residents began complaining to township officials about an influx of Orthodox into the township, the suit says.
Some residents amplified their views in hateful social media posts such as “we need to get rid of them like Hitler did” and calling the Orthodox “filthy f--ing cockroaches.”
Fearing that Jackson was “becoming a subdivision of Lakewood,” township officials conspired to create and enforce discriminatory ordinances that would stymie the religious observances and redline more Orthodox Jews from moving in, the suit filed in Superior Court in Toms River charges.
Named as defendants are Reina, the Township Council, the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Township Planning Board.
“Like all public servants, municipal officials have a duty to uphold the law, not weaponize it against specific groups because of what they believe or how they worship,” Grewal said. “Today’s lawsuit should send that message to anyone in New Jersey who needs to hear it.”
The state complaint alleges that township officials:
- Used discriminatory surveillance to target Orthodox Jews suspected of hosting communal prayer gatherings with discriminatory surveillance:
- Dedicated “significant resources to monitoring the homes of Orthodox Jews, at the direction of Mayor Reina and others, even after officials warned that taxpayer funds and government resources were being wasted and that officials were not finding significant code violations”;
- Discriminatorily applied land-use laws to “inhibit the erection of sukkahs” – temporary outdoor structures built to observe the weeklong fall harvest holiday known as Sukkot – particularly in the front yards of observant Jews;
- Enacted discriminatory zoning ordinances that “essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories, where yeshiva students typically reside so as to avoid the distractions of secular life”;
- Enacted another discriminatory zoning law that “targeted and effectively banned the creation of eruvim – symbolic, boundary-defined areas in which observant Orthodox Jews are permitted to engage in certain activities otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath and during the holiday of Yom Kippur.
According to the complaint, Reina said if the targeted homes were churches instead of Orthodox places of worship, he would “absolutely not” be treating them the same way.
The mayor also was warned that “Jackson will be sued and it will cost the taxpayers dearly to defend the ordinance, potentially millions” if officials tried to prohibit religious schools, it says.
The state’s suit, in part, mirrors another filed by the U.S. Department of Justice last May accusing Jackson Township of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons and Fair Housing act.
State authorities are alleging violations of the state Law Against Discrimination. They ask that a judge issue an order prohibiting the alleged discrimination from continuing and impose civil penalties, among other relief.
Assistant Attorney General Mayur P. Saxena and Deputy Attorneys General Renee Greenberg, Joanna R. Loomis, Micauri Vargas, and Eve Weissman are handling the Jackson Township complaint for the state.
It's the second filed recently by state authorities to stop a New Jersey municipality from discriminating against Orthodox Jews.
Mahwah officials were challenged in court in 2017 after adopting two discriminatory ordinances – one banning non-residents from using the township’s public parks, the other banning the posting of “lechis” on utility poles located within the municipality, Grewal noted in a release.
The township settled with the state rather than go to trial, the attorney general said.
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