(July 22, 2020 / JNS) The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York sent a letter Monday notifying the Village of Airmont in Rockland County, N.Y., that they plan to file suit against the village on the grounds that are violating terms of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
RLUIPA, as the law is commonly referred to, was created in part to ensure that municipalities did not create zoning or landmarking laws that would discriminate against religious institutions or “unreasonably” limit religious structures or assembly within in a jurisdiction.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its letter that the Village’s zoning code “substantially burdens, discriminates against and unreasonably limits the practice of religion by the Village’s Orthodox Jewish community.”
In a statement, Agudath Israel of America said it is “grateful that the [U.S.] Justice Department is prepared to take all steps necessary to fight religious discrimination and ensure religious liberty.”
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Committee also praised the move. In a statement, the OJPCA said that “the Village of Airmont was created three decades ago essentially to abuse government power against Orthodox Jews. Time and again, the DOJ stepped in to stop it, and here we are again because the essence of the village has not changed.”
The Village of Airmont is no stranger to allegations that it discriminates against Orthodox Jews. Its establishment in 1991 was considered by some as a way to take control over local zoning ordinances and limit the construction of houses of worship. Since Torah-observant Jews don’t drive on Saturday (Shabbat) and most Jewish holidays, they often live within walking distance of a congregation.
By denying the construction of synagogues, many believed that village officials were effectively trying to keep out the Orthodox.
In fact, the federal government’s first lawsuit against Airmont was in 1991 under the Fair Housing Act when officials claimed that the village had been “incorporated for the purpose of excluding Orthodox Jews through zoning restrictions on their places of worship.”
The U.S. Attorney’s letter also notes that Airmont is the subject of two federal lawsuits claiming religious discrimination—Central UTA (United Talmudic Academy) v. Village of Airmont and Congregation of Ridnik v. Village of Airmont.
It further states that the village violated a previous judgment against it to “recognize the category of ‘residential place of worship,’ a category which has been removed from the Village’s zoning code.”
“We will briefly delay filing the complaint if the Village is willing to negotiate a resolution of this matter through a consent decree that would be filed simultaneously with the complaint,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss wrote, adding that the lawsuit will be filed no later than Sept. 15. “We hope to solve this matter through an amicable settlement, rather than through potentially costly and protracted litigation.”
Attorney Brian Sokoloff, partner and co-founder of Sokoloff Stern, LLP, which is representing the Village of Airmont, said that it doesn’t comment on pending or threatened litigation. He also replied with “no comment” when asked if he was surprised that issues regarding RLIUPA continue to be at issue.
Sokoloff said that the Village had won a previous lawsuit filed by the United Talmudical Academy in state court. He added that the federal court has dismissed “large portions” of the Central UTA lawsuit. Sokoloff Stern has also made a motion to dismiss the case by the Congregation of Ridnik.
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