The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey filed a lawsuit today against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, alleging that the borough and its zoning board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow an Orthodox Jewish congregation to build a house of worship on its property and took steps to keep it from building a house of worship anywhere else in the borough.
According to the complaint, Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation located in Woodcliff Lake, spent nine years searching for a property within the area suitable to construct a house of worship. However, when Valley Chabad attempted to buy three different sites between 2005 and 2013, the borough thwarted those attempts in various ways, including expressing interest in rezoning or acquiring those properties through eminent domain after Valley Chabad entered contracts to purchase them. The borough ultimately acquired two of the properties and rezoned the third.
Unable to purchase a new property in the area that was suitable for their needs, Valley Chabad submitted a variance application to the Woodcliff Lake zoning board to construct a larger house of worship at its current location in the borough. After two years, 18 hearings, and substantial revisions by Valley Chabad to address size and transportation concerns, the zoning board denied the application.
The zoning board cited aesthetic concerns, the adverse impact on the “residential character of the neighborhood,” and safety issues that were undermined by the testimony of the zoning board’s own experts. The board also noted parking limitations that were the result of a 2016 ordinance enacted well after Valley Chabad submitted its variance application in 2014. In addition, when citing concerns that Valley Chabad would not adhere to the occupancy limits proposed in the application, the zoning board falsely characterized testimony from a Valley Chabad rabbi about prior attempts to control crowds.
“Federal law protects all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful barriers when they seek to build a place of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Carpenito. “According to the complaint, the Borough of Woodcliff Lake imposed a substantial burden on Valley Chabad’s religious freedom by repeatedly meddling in its attempts to purchase property in the area and citing subjective and misleading reasons to justify denying its zoning application.”
“The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice remains vigilant in its enforcement of federal civil rights laws protecting religious groups’ ability to establish places of worship without improper interference.”
The Department of Justice today announced the “Place to Worship Initiative,” which will focus on protecting the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities – as provided by the land use provisions of the RLUIPA. As a part of the new initiative, the Department will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices to strengthen awareness of the land use provisions of RLUIPA. The first community outreach event under the initiative will be held on June 25, in Newark, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. Specifically, RLUIPA bars land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise without a compelling justification, requires governments to treat houses of worship as favorably as nonreligious assemblies, and bars governments from discriminating among religions and from totally or unreasonably excluding houses of worship.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael E. Campion, Chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Unit, Civil Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Millenky, Civil Division.