New York AG Warns Monroe Against Zoning Law That Affects Orthodox Jews

By Reuvain Borchardt

The New York Attorney General’s Office is warning the Village of Monroe against moving forward with a zoning bill that could restrict Orthodox Jews’ religious practice.

 “The proposed law places restrictions on residential gathering places, neighborhood places of worship, community places of worship, and schools of general instruction that could violate the rights of Orthodox Jews to exercise their religion,” reads the letter, sent earlier this week on advance of Thursday night’s special meeting of the village’s board of trustees. The letter, to village mayor Neil Dwyer, is signed by officials at the Attorney General Office’s Civil Rights Bureau. Attorney General Letitia James has been an outspoken opponent of zoning laws she has said are targeted at limiting the growth of Orthodox communities.

The Village of Monroe, located in Orange County just outside Kiryas Joel, has a sizable and growing minority of Orthodox Jews.

The Village’ Proposed Local law No. 5 is the latest controversy that has arisen in villages and towns in upstate New York and in New Jersey, as Orthodox Jews have moved into the areas and proliferated.

Typically, the cases arise after the municipalities deny the Jews permits to erect a school, shul or an eruv. The municipalities, and the residents who support them, refuse these permits on the grounds that they violate local laws — and sometimes the municipalities enact new zoning laws as Orthodox populations grow. More broadly, some residents complain that allowing increased construction would lead to overdevelopment and change the suburban or rural nature of the areas. But the Orthodox communities allege that the residents are engaging in thinly veiled, or at times overt, antisemitic rhetoric and actions, passing and enforcing laws that serve to restrict Orthodox growth.

In nearly all cases where the Orthodox community has filed suit, they have either won or received favorable settlements, but often only after protracted and acrimonious legal battles — and often after the Attorney General of New York or New Jersey has gotten involved.

The letter is an attempt to head off passage of this bill before it becomes law.

The proposed bill restricts and regulates the use of houses of worship, the use of private homes as places of worship, and schools. The law’s legislative purpose says it seeks to “promote individual constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and free exercise of religion and to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of Village of Monroe residents.” But the letter argues the bill violates state and federal law.

Noting that New York law prohibits zoning laws that “by their cost, magnitude or volume … operate indirectly” to exclude religious use; the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) says local zoning laws may not impose a substantial burden on religious exercise unless that burden is the least restrictive means for furthering a compelling governmental interest; and that the Fair Housing Act bars zoning ordinances that discriminate against religious exercise in the past, the letter says, “Proposed Local Law 5 appears to limit the ability of Orthodox Jews to practice their religion in violation of these state and federal laws. The OAG [Office of the Attorney General] is not persuaded that the law’s stated rationale is sufficient to justify those restrictions. To the extent the proposed law addresses legitimate health and safety concerns, the OAG is not persuaded that its requirements are the least restrictive means for achieving the law’s goals.”

The letter asks that the Village delays action on the law until the Attorney General’s Office “has had a thorough opportunity to evaluate the law,” and that the village provide the Attorney General’s Office with a written justification for the law by September 29 — with the implication that failure to do so may result in the Attorney General bringing legal action against the village.

Mayor Dwyer did not immediately respond to Hamodia’s request for comment Thursday.

Read the letter here

Read the proposed law here

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