A New Jersey Township has agreed to pay a $575,000 settlement to its Orthodox Jewish community for discriminating against their right to hold religious assemblies.
Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced Monday that Jackson Township discriminated against Orthodox Jewish residents through the use of “zoning and land use powers” making it harder for Orthodox Jews to practice their religion.
Additionally, the Jackson Township prohibited the Orthodox Jewish community from building religious schools and places of worship, Religion News Service reports.
According to a complaint filed by the DCR, in 2016 the township adopted a surveillance plan to monitor homes where Orthodox Jewish residents were allegedly gathering for Shabbat and it resulted in “regular, often daily home monitoring” of suspected congregations.
The monitoring began shortly after a group of township residents complained about the influx of Orthodox Jewish residents in 2015.
“Residents wrote to Township officials raising alarm about an ‘extremist religious group’ seeking to ‘take over our town’ and ‘destroy our neighborhoods.’ Residents amplified these grievances through social media with hateful rhetoric, saying that ‘the gang war has begun’ and ‘[we] need to get rid of them like Hitler did,’” according to the complaint.
The complaint also alleges that the town reinterpreted existing law to prevent the residents from putting up sukkahs, temporary open-air structures used during the festival of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles.
In 2017, the township also passed an ordinance that essentially barred religious schools in almost all the town’s zoning districts. During that same year, township officials began a campaign to ban the use of eruvim – a ritual enclosure that creates a space where Orthodox Jews are permitted to take part in activities that would otherwise be prohibited on Yom Kippur or the Sabbath.
In September 2017, they passed an ordinance that the complaint said was “effectively prohibiting eruvim.”
“Jackson officials were aware of the Ordinance’s discriminatory impact, which effectively bans both religious day schools and yeshivas in Jackson,” the complaint says.
In a consent order announced Monday, the Jackson Township agreed to pay $275,000 in penalties, plus $150,000 toward a restitution fund for those harmed by the town. If they violate the consent order they will have to pay another $150,000.
“No one in New Jersey should face discrimination for their religious beliefs,” Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a press release. “The settlement announced today is a powerful testament to our commitment to protecting residents’ right to religious freedom.”
“Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American democracy,” added Sundeep Iyer, Director of the Division on Civil Rights.
Iyer continued, “As hate and bias – including against the Jewish community – continue to rise, it is critical that we call out religious discrimination when we see it, and it is especially important that we hold public officials accountable when they treat people differently based on their faith.”
Although the town agreed to the settlement, it did not concede liability for the claims included in the 2021 complaint. However, they agreed to publish a description of its permitting requirements for sukkahs, establish a multicultural committee that will help address issues impacting Orthodox Jewish residents, and repeal and replace zoning ordinances that stopped the community from opening religious schools and establishing eruvim.
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