The federal government is suing a village in New York, accusing it of enacting zoning codes that impede Orthodox Jews' ability to worship in home synagogues. Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay
March 31 (UPI) -- A New York village has been barred from enforcing zoning provisions that allegedly thwart the ability of Orthodox Jews to worship in their homes pending the resolution of a religious discrimination lawsuit.
Both sides in the suit -- the federal government, which claims the Village of Airmont has made it impossible for residents to have home synagogues, and the Rockland County municipality, which argues the provisions strike a balance between religious freedom and public safety - consented to the enforcement ban.
Airmont did not admit to any wrongdoing in agreeing to the ban and says the government claims are meritless.
U.S. District Judge Nelson Roman entered an injunction on March 15 that makes residential places of worship a recognized land-use category and streamlines the application process for holding in-home worship services.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleges in the suit, filed in December, that the village had eliminated the RWP category in 2018 and applied its zoning code in a way that make it impossible for members of the Orthodox Jewish community to get approval for religious schools and home synagogues.
Orthodox Jewish religious law prohibits the use of automobiles on the Sabbath and all major Jewish holidays, so adherents must live within walking distance of synagogues.
Some applicants are required to submit an excessive number of physical copies of application materials, including expensive architectural renderings, and have to pay significant sums for each Community Design Review Committee meeting to compensate the members for their time, according to the DOJ.
"Applicants singled out by the CDRC can easily rack up tens of thousands of dollars in expenses in an endless Kafkaesque cycle that never resulted in an application being deemed completed," the suit says.
The suit also alleges the zoning code is interpreted in a way that prevents Jews from using their property to construct sukkahs, ritual huts required under Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and install mikvahs, ritual baths that are necessary for religious observance.
Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, called Airmont's actions "despicable."
"This unlawful anti-Semitic conduct is wholly unacceptable in the United States of America, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not tolerate it," Dreiband said in a statement.
A place to worship
The suit is part of the DOJ's Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law prohibits zoning and other land-use regulations that impose a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion by individuals and religious institutions, unless those regulations are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.
Audrey Strauss, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, says the government has presented evidence that Airmont's zoning provisions were motivated by discriminatory animus and served no legitimate governmental purpose.
Members of Airmont's Board of Trustees, which is composed of the mayor and four trustees, did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment.
In a court document, Airmont says its residential place of assembly law is applied equally to everyone and that "every village resident is free to pray in his or her home or anywhere in the village, without restriction or regulation, just like any other American."
In addition, residents can use a single-occupancy home as a regular public gathering space for any purpose, including group worship, according to the document.
"That is, of course, so long as the site -- its size, fire safety, ingress, egress, bathrooms, parking, etc. -- can support the health, safety and welfare of all who gather there. The village cannot permit homes to become fire traps or other threats to human well-being," the court document says.
Keisha Russell, counsel at First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit that litigates religious liberty cases, said discrimination against the Jewish community is more prevalent than many people realize. A lot of conflicts take place at the local level, and those cases get little news media coverage, she said.
"You'll find a lot of local zoning boards that end up enforcing arbitrary regulations against this community that would not be enforced if the gathering were secular in nature," Russell said. "That is true in Airmont."
The village website describes Airmont as a community of 9,000 people residing in 2,500 homes, with a culture represented by people of all races and creeds.
The DOJ contends the village came into existence in 1991 after a group called the Airmont Civic Association mobilized residents to incorporate as a separate municipality out of the town of Ramapo in reaction to the rising number of Orthodox Jews settling in the area.
The organization "openly and successfully stoked fears of a 'grim Hasidic belt' and exhorted the virtues of 'keeping the Hasidim out' in forming the village and enacting a restrictive zoning code," the suit says.
The federal government has previously sued Airmont, claiming the village was using zoning laws to exclude Orthodox Jews and disrupt their religious exercise. The two sides entered into a consent decree in 2011 that prohibited the village from imposing burdens on religious exercise and land use, according to the DOJ.
The decree, which did not include admission of liability by Airmont, expired in 2015, and the DOJ says the village "has returned to its old ways in recent years."
The DOJ suit notes that Airmont's actions have been the subject of two other recent lawsuits -- one by a Hasidic Jewish school and the other by a group of residents -- and that the federal government's suit "should be deemed related" to them.
The school, Central UTA of Monsey, which claimed it was blocked by zoning laws from expanding and operating, reached a settlement with the village in December.
First Liberty, which represents the plaintiffs in both cases, along with private law firms, said the village agreed to fairly review the school's project applications within reasonable deadlines and Central UTA agreed to work with the land use review process to ensure compliance with state and local laws.
The other suit, filed in 2018, is pending. The residents, including three Orthodox Jewish rabbis, allege Airmont has engaged in systematic discrimination to dissuade them from staying in or moving to the village and forced them to practice their faith in hiding.
Rabbi Moishe Berger submitted an affidavit in the DOJ suit in February saying members of his community believe at least 10 men must come together to pray once in the morning and once in the afternoon each day, so he applied in December 2015 for a permit to convert part of his home into a place to worship.
However, after spending more than $20,000 trying to comply with "onerous" requirements, including landscaping, his request has not been approved, the rabbi says.
Russell said members of minority religions especially need help battling discrimination. In 2018, First Liberty helped the Islamic Association of Collin County win approval from the Farmersville, Texas, City Council to build a Muslim cemetery on the group's property, she said.
"It's not just a Christian or Catholic situation," Russell said. "A lot of Jewish people need this help. A lot of Muslims need help like this."