Justice Department Sues Airmont, Alleging Discrimination Against Orthodox Jews

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The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Village of Airmont in Rockland County, alleging discrimination against Orthodox Jewish residents.

 

The complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in White Plains, accuses Airmont of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by imposing land-use and zoning provisions that restrict Orthodox Jewish residents’ ability to have a shul in a private home, and prevent operation of yeshivos.

RLUIPA is a 2000 law that prohibits the implementation of any land-use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on religious activities unless it is justified by a “compelling governmental interest” that the government pursues in the least restrictive way possible; and prohibits discrimination or unreasonable limitation against religious gatherings, institutions or structures.

This is the third time the Justice Department has sued Airmont for discrimination against Orthodox Jews, under RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act. The first two lawsuits resulted in the entry of court judgments against Airmont – a village whose 1991 incorporation, according to Wednesday’s suit, “was motivated by the desire of certain leaders to impose unlawful zoning restrictions in order to thwart the ability of their Orthodox Jewish neighbors to worship at home in accordance with their religious beliefs” – a judgment following a jury trial in 1996, and a judgment pursuant to a court-entered consent decree in 2011.

 

Audrey Strauss, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement Wednesday, “As a jury found over two decades ago, the Village of Airmont was born out of a spirit of animus against a religious minority. Sadly, rather than working to overcome that shameful legacy, Airmont has flagrantly ignored the terms of a court judgment and implemented land use practices that by design and operation are again meant to infringe unlawfully on the rights of a minority religious community. Religious discrimination will not be tolerated. We will remain vigilant to  ensure that the right to worship freely and without undue interference is protected for all.”

The complaint alleges that after the last consent decree expired in 2015, and beginning with an administration elected in 2017 on an openly anti-Chasidic platform, Airmont has actively sought to prevent Orthodox Jews from operating shuls at home, or from operating yeshivos, by: imposing a land-use moratorium in 2017 that was motivated by a desire to prevent Orthodox development; amending the village’s zoning code in 2018 to remove “residential place of worship” as a recognized land-use category, in violation of the terms of the final judgment entered by the court in 1996; imposing new zoning-code requirements that limit the gross floor area of private residences that can be used for worship, restrict the co-congregants whom homeowners are allowed to host in their shuls, and ban the use of home mikvaos; implementing a new land-use application process designed to impose harsh zoning requirements on Orthodox Jewish residents, drive up their costs, and ensure that their applications, including minor alterations to private homes, go unapproved; and targeting Orthodox Jewish residents with the threat and imposition of unfounded fines for zoning infractions in order to thwart and intimidate land use applicants.

Current U.S. Attorney General William Barr, an advocate of religious liberties, was also attorney general in the George H. W. Bush administration when the first suit was filed against Airmont nearly three decades ago. For his efforts in that case, Agudath Israel of America awarded Barr its Humanitarian Award at the organization’s 1992 dinner.

 

Wednesday’s suit comes after the Justice Department sent Airmont a letter in July, notifying the village that it had authorized the filing of a lawsuit for action that “unreasonably limits the practice of religion by the village’s Orthodox Jewish Community,” and that the Justice department would delay filing the complaint if the Village is “willing to negotiate a resolution of the matter” through a consent decree.

The Justice Department is asking the court to declare Airmont’s zoning code a violation of RLUIPA, and enjoin the village from implementing land-use regulations that discriminate against or unreasonably burden religion.

The Village of Airmont did not immediately respond to Hamodia’s request for comment on the suit.

Orthodox community activists applauded news of the lawsuit Wednesday evening.

“The village of Airmont was created three decades ago with the essential goal of abusing government power against Orthodox Jews,” Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, said in a statement. “Time and again, the DOJ stepped in to stop it, and here we are again because the essence of the village has not changed.”

 

Rockland County Legislator Aron Wieder told Hamodia, “We should all be grateful to live in a country that is protecting the rights of every race, ethnic group and religion no matter their persuasion. I’m extremely disheartened that some in Rockland County, my beloved county, have not yet realized that they can’t discriminate and trample on the constitutional rights of citizens. And until they do not stop their hateful actions, Jews in Rockland are grateful to the federal government for its protection.”

The full complaint is available here.

Below is the letter the Justice Department sent to the Village of Airmont in July:

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