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Justice Department: Ramapough Indians' Denial Of Religious Freedom Complaint Should Proceed

The Ramapoughs say they conduct religious ceremonies and educational instruction on ceremonial land in Mahwah.
The Ramapoughs say they conduct religious ceremonies and educational instruction on ceremonial land in Mahwah. Photo Credit: COURTESY: Split Rock Sweet Water Prayer Camp

A denial of religious freedom complaint filed by the Ramapough Mountain Indians against the township of Mahwah is ready to be heard, the U.S. Justice Department said Monday.

Township officials claimed the Ramapoughs did not “exhaust the variance process at the local level" before filing a federal lawsuit against the township for preventing them from having religious services and educational instruction on 13.5 acres of ceremonial land off Halifax Road -- an area known as “Sweet Water.”

The Justice Department disagreed, saying the tribe should be able to proceed with its complaint under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.

The federal government "takes no position...on whether Mahwah has violated the RLUIPA," the department wrote in a "statement of interest" filed in connection with the tribe's lawsuit against the township.

However, it agrees with the Ramapoughs contention that they shouldn't have to first apply for a variance -- and be denied -- before their case can move through the federal court system.

In their suit, tribe members accuse the township of:

  • rescinding a zoning permit that originally authorized religious worship;
  • limiting the number of people permitted on the property for religious gatherings;
  • demanding the removal of structures central to the Ramapough’s worship, including a sweat lodge, a prayer circle, and an altar;
  • issuing large fines -- which, by last September, had reached $1.45 million -- and initiating civil and criminal enforcement proceedings.

The Ramapoughs also claim that the township has treated them differently than other similarly situated nonreligious groups.

There are nearly 5,000 Ramapo Mountain Indians, also known as the Ramapough Lenape Nation, living around the Ramapo Mountains of Bergen, Passaic and Rockland counties.

Theirs, they say, is a sovereign tribe that shouldn’t be prohibited from holding prayer ceremonies and educational programs on their land.

Sweet Water, they say, is “extraordinarily sacred” to the tribe because it is “one of only a few ceremonial sites left to the Ramapough after years of historic dispossession, discrimination, and marginalization.”

They also call it is “uniquely situated” for the tribe’s religious ceremonies because of its proximity to other sacred sites, including the confluence of the Mahwah and Ramapo rivers.

Township officials claim the area is being used as a campground, with teepees, tents and canvas cabins, which violates zoning law.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a “Place to Worship Initiative,” which focusses on RLUIPA provisions that protect the rights of religious institutions to worship on their land.

In July 2018, the department's announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

This led to the filing of the "statement of interest" in the Ramapough case.

“RLUIPA protects the rights of all religious communities to worship on their land free from discriminatory barriers and unlawful burdens,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito for New Jersey said. “Our office will continue to vigorously enforce the rights guaranteed by RLUIPA and take steps to ensure that it is applied correctly in our district.”

MORE INFO: www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship

The statement was prepared by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Campion, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Unit; Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Millenky of the Civil Division; and Trial Attorney Noah Sacks, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

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ALSO SEE: While news of the Justice Department's statement was being distributed, state officials announced Monday that they are officially recognizing the Ramapough Mountain Indians as an American Indian tribe since 1980.

SEE: NJ Officially Recognizes Ramapoughs, Powhatan As American Indian Tribes

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