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Lawsuit: New Jersey town illegally targeted Orthodox Jews

In this Aug. 5, 2017, file photo, in Mahwah, N.J., a vehicle drives past red piping attached to a utility pole, signifying an outdoor area known as an eruv used by Orthodox Jews to mark areas where they are permitted to carry items while observing Sabbath rules against work. The Mahwah town council tried to ban eruvs and to limit a public park to residents -- keeping out chiefly Jewish neighbors from New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

MAHWAH, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey sued one of its towns Tuesday over two recent ordinances the state says illegally targeted a Jewish community from nearby New York, likening the conduct of town officials to the “1950s-era white flight suburbanites” who sought to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods.

The lawsuit against Mahwah and its township council seeks to block the ordinances and seeks the return of more than $3.4 million in state grants the town has received from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The state contends Mahwah violated New Jersey’s Green Acres Act by banning out-of-state residents from its parks. The state notes that land acquired under the law cannot be restricted on the basis of religion or residency.

One of the measures cited in the suit limits the use of a public park to state residents. The second effectively bans the building of an eruv, a religious boundary created by placing white plastic piping on utility poles.

“In addition to being on the wrong side of history, the conduct of Mahwah’s township council is legally wrong, and we intend to hold them accountable for it,” Attorney General Christopher Porrino said.

“To think that there are local governments here in New Jersey, in 2017, making laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mindset, is deeply disappointing and shocking to many, but it is exactly what we are alleging in this case,” Porrino said. “Of course, in this case we allege the target of the small-minded bias is not African-Americans, but Orthodox Jews. Nonetheless, the hateful message is the same.”

The park ban was created in July after residents complained about overcrowding at parks and their use by Orthodox Jewish families from New York. Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli raised concerns at the time that the ban was illegal, and Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal advised police not to enforce it.

The Bergen Rockland Eruv Association and two New York residents filed a federal lawsuit in August alleging the town was violating their constitutional and civil rights with its ban on their religious boundary.

Some Orthodox Jews consider the boundary necessary to allow them to do such activities as carrying keys and pushing strollers on the Sabbath. Mahwah officials, though, said the markers violate local laws that prohibit signs on trees, rocks and utility poles.

Bill Laforet, Mahwah’s independent mayor, said he had “repeatedly warned” council members about the consequences they and the town could face and reminded them of the police chief’s concern. He said he also voiced concern about the “severe potential financial penalties” taxpayers could face.

Laforet said he’s “sorrowed by the loss of reputation for Mahwah,” which he described as a diverse, tolerant and welcoming community.

He puts much of the blame on City Council President Rob Hermansen. “His race-baiting bantering has now bitten him back,” Laforet said.

Hermansen said the prosecutor’s office and the attorney general’s office both rejected requests to help town officials create laws that would be neutral and could be enforced.

“It’s astonishing to know that we told them what we were looking to do and they rebuked us, and we’re now being sued over this,” he said.

Hermansen said the ordinance was written by the township attorney, not the council, and under those circumstances “we deem it to be good law when we receive it.”

He also disputed Laforet’s remarks about him and how the measures were handled, saying “the mayor has an issue with telling the truth.” He also said he was “getting tired of the mayor slandering me and my family. His attacks need to stop.”

A town spokeswoman said Mahwah would not be commenting on the suit on the advice of its attorney.

Hermansen, who has condemned anti-Semitic comments people have made about the Jewish community in some online postings, has said the ban was not created to be discriminatory. He noted that Mahwah residents began complaining this year about vehicles from New York occupying parking lots at Winters Pond, a recreational area across from the town’s train station.

The ordinance, he has said, was intended to curb the number of people from outside Mahwah using parks, not to target Jews.

“We had incidents where Mahwah families could not use the parks,” he said last month, so the council wanted to find a way to “put Mahwah residents first.”

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  • Nobody gets to use government property to advance their religious beliefs. This includes light poles and street signs. This applies to the majority religion and minority religions. The strings etc marking the eruv should be removed.

    Public parks are intended for public use. If one group systematically takes over the same public park week after week such that others are blocked from using it, the government agency overseeing the space has every right to step in and level the playing field. It doesn’t matter if this is a religious group or a sports league or the national association of sun bathers. Nobody gets to routinely take over public spaces in such a way that others are regularly blocked from the space.

    And given the presence of the eruv, one group of people clearly and intentionally marked this public park as their religious space. The takeover was intentional, planned and publicly communicated. And wrong.

    If their deity’s rules for the sabbath can be cancelled and subverted by a piece of string, there is surely must be a way for them to get around their sabbath rules without the magic piece of string, and without taking over the same string bordered park once a week.

  • First of all, there’s no evidence anyone was systemically taking over the parks. Jews are allowed to use parks and there’s no evidence anyone was excluded. You are also misreading the part about the eruv. It allows Orthodox Jews to effectively get to the park on the Sabbath. It did not demarcate or make a perimeter around the park itself.
    I agree that no one has an absolute right to use government property. Here, however, there was evidence that many groups used the utility poles for a variety of purposes. It was only when the Jewish group sought to do so that the municipality chose to step in. That constitutes an equal protection violation. That rule, and the rule purportedly barring non-state residents from municipal parks, were driven by animus toward Orthodox Jews and this is unconstitutional.

  • An eruv is defined as “an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.”

    An eruv is a demarcation on public land, using public property such as light poles. By definition, an eruv is not on private property.

    What other group permanently attaches items to utility poles and strings wire from pole to pole? No other group does this or would be allowed to do this.

    I am going by the article. It sounds as though one group is taking all the parking spaces every saturday, week after week. If this is correct, it is reasonable for the government to make sure everyone can access public spaces.

    I don’t see animus. I see an attempt to give everyone access, though I think those living nearby should definitely be able to use the park.

  • They don’t drive on the Sabbath, ergo they are not taking any parking spaces. The eruv — the “wires” of which are actually more like fishing line and would be invisible to you had you not known about it beforehand — do constitute a demarcation. But what Lark was suggesting was that it demarcated the park as some kind of “Jewish park.” It does nothing of the kind, it simply creates a legal-fiction “domain” in which carrying is permitted. No real estate transaction, whether purchase, lease or easement, is created by an eruv.
    What other group permanently attaches items to utility poles and strings wire from pole to pole? The electric and phone companies, for one. But if you look at other articles about the Mahwah eruv, you’ll find pictures of utility poles from the town that have scores of staples, tacks and nails in them. Now this could mean that hundreds of people illegally post to Mahwah utility poles and the town immediately takes them down. Or, more likely, it means that hundreds of people post things and Mahwah did nothing because they didn’t care — until the Jews came to town.
    The above paragraph, by the way, is pretty much exactly what transpired in the nearby town of Tenafly NJ a few years back. The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was no general right to put up an eruv on public property. The Court also found, however, that Tenafly had made plenty of exceptions in the past for all kinds of garage sale and lost dog signs. Only when the eruv was erected did Tenafly pass an ordinance banning utility pole signs. So, the Court found, the ordinance was not neutral toward religion, and rather was borne by animus and thus was unconstitutional.
    The Tenafly case is why Mahwah’s mayor, police chief and attorney all know that Mahwah is legally wrong here and will lose in court, costing its taxpayers thousands of dollars. On the other hand, the Mahwah police billed the eruv builders thousands of dollars for assistance and security while it was put up.

  • Hmmm, the utility pole eruv stuff is still problematic. Watch what happens when the Satanic Temple starts to symbolically mark areas using the same utility poles?…as areas for the “Devil’s safe passage”.

    It would be best if any religious symbols not be attached to public infrastructure.

  • Lol. You really don’t understand the intent of the Satanic temple’s displays. They only do it to point out the hypocrisy of many religious people who claim religious freedom then exclude other religions. But go on, stay ignorant.

  • The ordinance appears to fly in the face of well established precedent; in my own region the cross river migration on weekends, weekdays, whenever, is enormous between Oregon and Washington by residents of both states, and it is a matter of traffic inconvenience as there are only two bridges spanning the Columbia River in the Portland metro area, but that is the cost of living in a (relatively) densely populated urban area. My puzzlement in this case has less to do with constitutional arguments than with a philosophy or religious practice that continually seeks to extend the practical and material limits of the specified ordinances which it declares are the foundation of its faith.

  • My point was hypothetical…so you don’t understand. Replace Satanic Temple with Spaghetti Monster people if you like. The point is that public utility property should be off limits to religions.

  • “To think that there are local governments here in New Jersey, in 2017, making laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mindset…”

    “Some Orthodox Jews consider the boundary necessary to allow them to do such activities as carrying keys and pushing strollers on the Sabbath”

    Hmmm, who has the archaic mindset?

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