(JTA) — New Jersey’s Jackson Township has settled a state lawsuit alleging that it used local ordinances to discriminate against Orthodox Jews, after settling both a federal complaint and a private lawsuit based on similar claims.
In the settlement with the state attorney general, Jackson Township will pay $575,000 in penalties and restitution funds, repeal the ordinances that allegedly target Orthodox Jews and adopt new policies and procedures that protect religious freedom. It will also form a multicultural committee composed of residents that will meet quarterly to combat discrimination, and local officials will undergo anti-discrimination training.
“No one in New Jersey should face discrimination for their religious beliefs,” Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement. “We are firmly committed to eliminating discrimination and bias across our state, and we expect local leaders to comply with our robust anti-discrimination laws.”
The settlement comes after years in which officials and community groups in and around Jackson have been accused of trying to push out Orthodox residents. Jackson borders the heavily Orthodox city of Lakewood, and Orthodox Jews have moved into the surrounding towns as Lakewood’s population has swelled.
Activists organized to oppose the arrival of the new residents, including one group that repurposed a famous anti-Nazi poem to cast Orthodox Jews as a threat to the area’s quality of life. In 2019 and 2020, there were multiple instances of swastika graffiti on Jewish-owned property in Jackson.
Accusations of antisemitism
Local Jewish leaders accused the activists as well as local officials of antisemitism, with a synagogue suing Jackson in 2014 for barring it from building a girls high school. In 2020, the US Justice Department sued Jackson, alleging that it banned religious boarding schools to keep out Orthodox residents. Jackson settled the federal suit last year for $200,000 and a repeal of the boarding school ban. It settled the synagogue’s suit in January for $1.35 million.
The state attorney general filed its suit in 2021, alleging that the township had adopted discriminatory zoning and land use ordinances as well as enforcement practices that targeted Orthodox Jews. The suit said those practices violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law.
According to the complaint, which was filed by the the previous state attorney general and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the township engaged in discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews, hoping to spot prayer gatherings that contravened local ordinances. (The city of Miami Beach in Florida recently agreed to pay a single congregation $1.3 million after facing a lawsuit over similar allegations.)
The complaint alleged that the township applied land use laws and zoning ordinances unfairly to inhibit the construction of yeshivas and dormitories as well as sukkahs, the temporary huts built for the fall festival of Sukkot. And it said the town effectively banned the creation of an eruv, or symbolic boundary made of string that allows observant Jews to carry items outdoors on Shabbat.
Under the terms of the settlement, Jackson is required to notify the state of any decision or regulation that would affect local religious land use or practice. The state will monitor the township’s compliance with the settlement requirements for three years.
“Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and we are deeply committed to protecting it here in New Jersey,” Sundeep Iyer, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, said in a statement. “As hate and bias – including against the Jewish community – continue to rise, it is critical that we call out religious discrimination when we see it, and it is especially important that we hold public officials accountable when they treat people differently based on their faith.”