As Case against Jackson Proceeds, Agudah Asks Court to Suspend Controversial Laws

LAKEWOOD -

Attorneys are asking a federal judge to suspend Jackson Township’s ordinances banning eruvin and the construction of new schools and dormitories while litigation claiming they are discriminatory is pending in the courts.

The filing contains a swath of new evidence linking township officials and the enactment of the controversial laws to a campaign designed to deter Orthodox Jews from moving to Jackson.

While the case has been ongoing since 2017, Agudath Israel of America and a private developer, who are both plaintiffs, had been engaged in arbitration for close to a year. Attorney Roman Storzer told Hamodia that once negotiations broke down, it became necessary to press for a “preliminary injunction.”

“There are people who are suffering immediate harm as a result of the laws passed by the township which were enacted to target the Orthodox community. They can’t have an eruv and have to send their children to schools in another town, and it’s a hardship for them that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

Some of the new evidence is culled from depositions with various parties over another case that has pitted the interests of Orthodox community against the township, a suit by Oros Bais Yaakov over the zoning board’s denial of its 2013 application to relocate to Jackson. Among the statements quoted is the accusation by former town council member Ann Updegrave that Jackson’s Mayor Michael Reina and Council President Robert Nixon are “anti-Semites.”

In another section, Mayor Reina acknowledges that the township’s ordinance to restrict objects in the public domain, a de facto ban on eruvin, was initiated as a direct response to complaints from residents over poles and strings.

Many more statements intended to demonstrate animus towards the Orthodox community are taken from emails made public through a series of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests submitted by Jackson residents over the past two years.

The emails show a concerted effort by Mayor Reina, Council President Nixon, and others in township government to monitor homes they suspect of being used as shuls, and other possible zoning violations by Orthodox residents.

A request for comment to a Jackson township official by Hamodia went unanswered.

The filing also records a number of statements by the mayor framing eruvin as an attempt to impose religious law on the township. In one such quote he remarks, “What’s next, sharia law?”

Additionally, it records a long list of virulently anti-Semitic statements by township residents. In some instances these messages were sent to township officials and seem to have elicited action either in the form of new ordinances or enforcement of existing ones.

“The law says that if there are residents that harbor prejudicial animus and officials are responsive to that sentiment, that’s a legal violation,” said Mr. Storzer.

The request for injunction also references several other township actions the plaintiffs claim targeted Orthodox residents, such as prohibiting children to use Jackson’s “spray park” while dressed in non-swim apparel, selectively enforcing real-estate sign laws against Jewish brokers, and issuing violations for sukkahs and tarps placed around private swimming pools.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel’s New Jersey Director, said that more than 1,500 Orthodox children in Jackson are forced to commute to Lakewood for schooling, placing a strain both on them and on the institutions they attend.

“Every month that goes by, it is more difficult to deal with these ordinances, and as the school year began we were once again reminded of the necessity to build schools to accommodate children living in Jackson,” he told Hamodia. “The injunction is something the community needs now so that they are not tied down by the slow timetable of what could be a protracted legal battle, which we are likely to win anyway.”

Amid growing tensions surrounding an influx of Orthodox Jewish families to Jackson, many from neighboring Lakewood, in 2017 the town council enacted the two controversial ordinances. Shortly after their passage, the present lawsuit was initiated.

Amid pressure from former state attorney general Christopher Porrino over what he called out as discriminatory land-use laws by municipalities, Jackson officials amended the eruv law and entered into arbitration.

Yet, the plaintiffs said that the amendment insufficiently addressed their grievances, and attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement reached an impasse. This past January, a FOIL request revealed an email from Mayor Reina in which he wrote, “As I strongly stated Monday, game on, gloves off and representing all our residents is the direction moving forward.” Around the same time, the township also contracted with Marci Hamilton, an attorney who is a long-time opponent of expansion of protections for religious groups, particularly regarding land-use laws.

The email and hiring were presented in a letter by the Agudah to the presiding judge that Jackson officials have been negotiating in “bad faith,” and that they intended to move forward with the suit. Citing statements in many of the revealed emails, Mayor Reina, Council President Nixon, and four other Jackson officials were personally added to the legal action, which was initially only aimed at the township.

Two weeks before the injunction was filed, an audio recording revealed that three members of Jackson’s zoning board had attended a meeting of a group formed to stymie the growth of the town’s Orthodox community. This revelation swiftly led to their resignations.

Mr. Storzer said that it was impossible to predict when the court would rule on the request for injunction, but expressed optimism over the future of the case.

“We are hopeful for a successful outcome, and, if granted, would also hope that the township would realize the error of its ways and remove these discriminatory ordinances from their books.”