NJ Yeshivah Victorious in Federal Appeals Court

LAKEWOOD -
An architect’s sketch of Yeshivah Naos Yaakov
An architect’s sketch of Yeshivah Naos Yaakov

Yeshivah Naos Yaakov has won its case against a local New Jersey zoning board that attempted to block its new dorm construction, amid accusations of anti-Orthodox animus. The decision could serve as an important precedent for several similar ongoing cases in communities surrounding Lakewood.

Roman P. Storzer, a national expert on religious land-use litigation who represented Naos Yaakov’s claims, welcomed the decision.

“This ruling acknowledges the importance of protecting the rights of religious educational institutions, especially those of the Orthodox community,” he told Hamodia. “The yeshivah is looking forward to a cooperative and beneficial relationship with the township and we hope that this decision will be a positive step for religious liberty in general.”

Oral arguments between Naos Yaakov and Ocean Township took place on July 21 and were presided over by Judge Freda Wolfson in a Federal Appeals Court in Trenton. Last Thursday, the Judge handed down a six-page ruling reversing the Township’s denial, saying that the yeshivah constitutes an “inherently beneficial use, and the denial of that application is determined to be a violation of RLUIPA.”

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 bill, focuses on preventing government from placing “substantial burdens on the free exercise of religion,” particularly as it pertains to zoning laws and prisoners.

The yeshivah, which is led by Harav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, has maintained a dorm in nearby Lakewood since its inception several years ago. However, recent growth made it necessary to acquire larger and more permanent housing facilities, leading to the purchase of a property in Ocean Township on Logan Road.

Shortly after the application process began, though, the project became the target of widespread public opposition that frequently spilled into the use of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox rhetoric.

Naos Yaakov’s legal briefs contain a collection of over 10 pages of such statements, largely gathered from blogs and social media. They are peppered with terms such as “religious zealots,” “locusts” and “long- coat gangsters,” in reference to the Orthodox community.

Zoning board hearings drew crowds that exceeded 1,000 participants on several occasions, and often became contentious, with spectators interjecting comments as witnesses testified. The plaintiff’s brief says the crowds were an attempt to “pack” and delay proceedings. Hearings carried on beyond the statutory limit and ultimately the application was rejected, claiming lack of knowledge about the project.

The yeshivah’s legal team argued that the pervasive anti-Orthodox sentiment and absence of concrete evidence of any detrimental effects the facility would cause pointed to discrimination as a key motivation for the denial.

Judge Wolfson’s decision makes no mention of community animus. It simply grants permission for the construction to proceed, with several technical demands made of the yeshivah in order to comply with local concerns.

Rabbi Moshe Gourarie of Toms River, also represented by Mr. Storzer, is engaged in litigation for his town’s insistence on a variance to operate the Chabad house. A similar case involving an application by a yeshivah in Howell is also in the process of litigation.

“We see this ruling as having broader implications, and hope that it will lead other jurisdictions to take the rights of religious institutions seriously into account,” said Mr. Storzer.

The increasing presence of Orthodox Jews in towns surrounding Lakewood has been a source of contention, with many municipalities using a variety of legal means to block expansion. Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey division, said that he hoped the ruling would discourage “unscrupulous” use of zoning and other laws being employed in the vicinity.

“This decision makes a statement that the religious liberties of institutions and individuals will be defended even in the face of opposition. It also sends a clear message that our religious rights will not be trampled upon and we hope this will serve as an example to other municipalities.