Woodcliff Lake/photo courtesy of Google street view Woodcliff Lake/photo courtesy of Google street view

The federal government has filed a civil right lawsuit against a New Jersey borough, alleging that it unlawfully blocked an Orthodox Jewish community from building a synagogue.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey on Wednesday filed the suit against Woodcliff Lake, a suburban community located in Bergen County, about 20 miles northwest of Manhattan and closer still to New York’s Rockland County to the north.

The lawsuit alleges that the leadership of the borough, which has about 6,000 residents, went out of its way to deny the Orthodox Jewish community, Valley Chabad, a permit to build a house of worship.

“Federal law protects all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful barriers when they seek to build a place of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito in a statement, adding that the municipality “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.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division added, “The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right.”

The municipality is denying wrongdoing, contending that the proposed construction doesn’t fit the property. The attorney for the borough, Ronald Dario of Dario, Albert, Metz & Eyerman in Hackensack, did not return a call seeking comment, but a recent nj.com report quotes an email from Dario: ”We maintain that our borough is non discriminatory and welcoming for people of all faiths. … The fact that the zoning application required two dozen variances shows how ill-suited the property is for their proposed use.”

The complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, says Valley Chabad “adheres to a holistic approach to worship in which the community prays together, provides religious education, hosts social events, conducts bar and bat mitzvahs, and offers lectures and learning opportunities at a single location.”

The congregation’s troubles with the borough, the lawsuit claim, began in the early 2000s, when borough officials expressed concerns that the town would soon resemble nearby Monsey, New York, which has a large Orthodox Jewish community. Monsey is about seven miles from Woodcliff Lake.

A borough official, the lawsuit alleges, asked Valley Chabad’s chief rabbi to write a letter explaining how the congregation would differ from the Jewish community in Monsey.

Afterward, Valley Chabad sought unsuccessfully to build a house of worship on two sites within Woodcliff Lake.

The first site was instead sold to a developer, which built townhouses, the government claims. The congregation then sought permission to build its facility on a plot of land called Galaxy Gardens, but the move was met with swift opposition by a group of residents called Concerned Neighbors & Residents of Woodcliff Lake, the lawsuit says, adding that the congregation’s building permit was discussed at an October 2013 borough council meeting.

“We are Woodcliff Lake residents and we do not want the character of the town to change,” the lawsuit quotes one unnamed council member as saying.

The government claims “the policies and procedures of the … borough in handling religious land use applications give rise to the likelihood of future unlawful conduct.”

Another council member, also not named, was quoted as saying the borough should purchase the site sought by the congregation as open space. Since then, the lawsuit alleges, the borough has taken no steps to purchase the property.

The suit claims violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and seeks an order from the borough to authorize the construction of the house of worship.

The lawsuit has not yet been assigned to a judge.