The U.S. Justice Department announced Monday a consent order of preliminary injunction with the Village of Airmont, in Rockland County, mandating that the village cease enforcement of zoning-code provisions enacted in 2018 that discriminate against Orthodox Jewish residents in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The federal government had filed suit last December against the zoning-code provisions at issue, which the limit the amount of space in private homes that can be used as a residential place of worship, restrict whom residents may invite into their own homes to pray, and expand the use of an application process the government described as “arbitrary,” “drawn-out” and “designed to delay and effectively deny permits for even minor alterations to private houses.”
“The right to Free Exercise of religion is central to the First Amendment, and our multicultural society is only as strong as our willingness to stand up for the rights of religious minorities,” said Audrey Strauss, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “We appreciate Airmont’s willingness to agree to cease enforcement of its discriminatory zoning code restrictions pending final resolution of this matter.”
Under the terms of the Injunction entered Monday by U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Román, Airmont:
— Must restore residential places of worship as a recognized land use category permitted as of right in all residential districts and may not enforce contrary provisions of local law enacted in 2018 that removed residential places of worship as a recognized of-right use from the village’s zoning code;
— Must restore in full zoning provisions protecting the right to residential worship enacted by order of the District Court in 1996 after a jury found that Airmonthad engaged in discrimination against Orthodox Jews, which Airmont removed from its zoning code in 2018 in violation of that Court-entered final judgment;
— Must ensure that all applications for residential places of worship that are 1,400 square feet or less in total size are reviewed and approved on an expedited basis without public hearing; and
— May not adjudicate applications for residential places of worship that are larger than 1,400 square feet under the terms of site development regulations enacted in 2018, which expanded and made mandatory an extensive review process, and may instead only apply regulations that were in effect under an earlier version of Airmont’s zoning code enacted in 1997.
News of the consent decree was hailed Monday by supporters of religious liberties.
“While this temporary consent decree is a great step, there is still major work to be done to ensure Airmont respects the rights of its Orthodox Jewish residents,” said Keisha Russell, counsel at First Liberty Institute, a public-interest law firm that focuses on religious freedoms and had filed the suit from which the consent decree arose. We will continue to fight to put an end to Airmont’s practice of religious discrimination once and for all.”
Yossi Gestetner, Executive Director of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, which advocates for the Orthodox community and had launched a publicity campaign opposing Airmont’s zoning regulations, told Hamodia,“In 2015, a slate of village candidates ran on a platform to oppose Orthodox Jews. Once in office, that team kept implementing policies brazenly targeting Orthodox Jews, including on zoning, parking and parades, and even laws to make a Hachnasas Sefer Torah difficult. OJPAC kept shining a light on these abuses through a series of articles. The local community took it to court and then the DoJ stepped in. This didn’t happen overnight, but basic religious liberties and protections against discriminatory laws have finally been restored.”
Updated Monday, March 15, 2021 at 7:27 pm .