After a legal battle spanning nearly four years, a judge’s granting of temporary injunction will block a set of ordinances in Jackson Township that created a de facto ban on the construction of schools, dormitories, and eruvin.
While the ruling is not a final one, it is a likely indication that the court will side with the Agudath Israel of America and a private property developer that the zoning rules passed hastily as the town’s Orthodox population began to grow were rooted in an effort to stymie that community’s development and were illegal.
“Testimony in the record, in conjunction with the hostility expressed by Township residents and officials supports a finding that anti-Semitic animus was a motivating factor in the passage of the ordinances,” wrote Judge Michael Shipp, of the federal District Court for New Jersey, in his ruling. “Defendants maintain that the Township Council’s decisions were not motivated by the anti-Semitic animus exhibited by others. But the record suggests otherwise.”
The case has shaken Jackson’s town government for some time. A series of FOIL requests revealed the level to which several elected officials had taken an active role in urging local law enforcement to act against informal shuls and other actions seemingly intended to discourage Orthodox Jews from establishing themselves in the town. In testimony collected for the present case, former Councilman Kenneth Bressi said that the town’s mayor Michael Renia and two of its former Council Presidents Robert Nixon and Barry Calogero had been guided by the objectives of groups dedicated to stunting the community’s growth.
Following revelations, the names of several officials were added to the ongoing lawsuit over the ordinances.
Mr. Calogero resigned last May shortly after he drew criticism for saying at a public meeting that the National Guard should be called in to enforce COVID regulations in Lakewood. Mr. Nixon resigned in December 2019. Both denied that their resignations were connected to the litigation or issues surrounding it, but many speculated that they had done so to protect themselves from its potential effects on other professional positions they hold.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, the Director of Agudah’s New Jersey division, said that besides delivering a promising note for the Orthodox community’s legal struggles, the ruling will provide much needed relief to transportation and infrastructure challenges in educating Orthodox children living in Jackson, who as of now almost entirely attend schools in neighboring Lakewood.
“The need to build schools in Jackson is way overdue. There are 3000 Jackson kids in Lakewood schools, in some mosdos a majority of their students from Jackson” said Rabbi Schnall. “Lakewood is maxed out and hopefully this will be the first step in addressing the needs of the Jackson community’s growth.”
Jackson Township has been struggling to fulfill its state mandate to transport the large volume of Orthodox students to the schools they attend. Many do receive transportation, but many others are given a stipend in lieu of actual bussing.
In 2019, amid pressure from former state attorney general Christopher Porrino, Jackson officials amended the eruv law and entered into arbitration.
However, the plaintiffs said that the amendment was insufficient and attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement reached an impasse. At the time, the Agudah presented evidence to the court that Jackson officials had been negotiating in “bad faith” and the court allowed the suit to continue.
In May 2020, after several years of investigation into accusations of discriminatory actions, the federal Department of Justice filed a suit against Jackson over the ordinances. Last month, the New Jersey State Attorney General did the same.
Judge Shipp’s ruling only puts a temporary hold on the ordinances. Nevertheless, he says that based on extensive evidence of anti-Semitic animus and a failure to work towards accommodating the Orthodox community’s needs that plaintiffs case will likely win based on its merits. Some speculated that the release of the injunction was likely intended to give Jackson an opportunity to adjust its own laws before a court ruling forces them to do so.
Rabbi Schnall hoped that the township would now be willing to settle the suit.
“While this is not the end, it’s certainly a clear indication of how the judge is likely to rule,” he said. “Hopefully this will encourage [the township] to put an end to its pursuit to restrict the needs of the Orthodox community and come to a settlement.”
Updated Wednesday, May 5, 2021 at 5:46 pm .