In a lawsuit reminiscent of the Civil Rights era, the state Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Bergen County township of Mahwah, alleging that it enacted ordinances aimed at staving off a perceived influx of Orthodox Jews.
Attorney General Christopher Porrino, in a statement, likened the conduct of Mahwah’s elected officials to those of 1950s “white flight” suburbanites who sought to keep African-Americans out of their towns.
“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,” 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.”
At issue are two ordinances passed by the township council. One banned non-New Jersey residents from using Mahwah’s public parks; the other, an ordinance amendment, effectively banned the posting on utility poles of plastic strips called “lechis” that denote the boundaries of an “eruv,” a geographic area through which Orthodox Jews may move while still observing the Sabbath’s movement restrictions, the state alleges. The complaint also challenges actions the township has taken to have an existing eruv removed.
Township officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to media reports, local council meetings in recent years have turned raucous as local residents have complained about an influx of Orthodox Jewish citizens from adjacent Rockland County, New York.
The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Bergen County. It alleges that the township council, influenced largely by vocal anti-Orthodox Jewish sentiment expressed by some residents at public meetings and on social media, engaged in unlawful discrimination aimed at halting an unwanted “infiltration.”
Deputy Attorney General James Michael wrote in the complaint: “The Attorney General brings this action both in the public interest and on behalf of those persons who are or will be directly affected.”
In addition to charging discrimination, the complaint notes that Mahwah has received more than $3.4 million in “Green Acres” grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection for purchase and maintenance of its parks, and claims that Mahwah’s ordinance banning non-New-Jersey residents from using those parks is a direct breach of its funding contracts. The suit seeks to reclaim those state funds.
“Our public officials are sworn to respect and uphold the rule of law, to set an example and represent all citizens—not just those with the loudest voices,” Porrino said in the statement. “No person should need to hide his or her religious faith to live, work, or enjoy a local park.”
An eruv is a designated geographical area within which Sabbath-observant Jews may push or carry objects, such as a stroller, wheelchair, keys or identification, during the Sabbath, which lasts from Friday evening to Saturday evening each week, and during the annual Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.
For those who hold these beliefs, the complaint says, the act of pushing or carrying objects on the Sabbath or Yom Kippur is permitted only inside the home or within the confines of a properly established eruv. An eruv is commonly created by affixing thin plastic strips known as lechis to utility poles to mark the boundaries of the area.
In 2015, the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association sought to extend an existing eruv in Rockland County, to cover the full southern part of the county. The proposed path of the extension included areas within a portion of Mahwah Township near the New York border.
The complaint alleges that, despite approval of the posting of lechis on its utility poles in Mahwah by Orange & Rockland Utilities, the township council approved an illegal amendment to its sign ordinance effectively banning lechis on utility poles.
As amended, the sign ordinance, which previously banned simply “signs” on utility poles, now included expanded language prohibiting the posting of “any … device or other matter” on a utility pole, shade tree, lamppost, curbstone, sidewalk, or upon any public structure or building in Mahwah, according to the complaint.
Regarding the parks ordinance, the complaint says all seven township council members voted in favor of the measure.
The complaint claims many of the public comments offered during meetings were “overtly anti-Semitic” in nature, and that around the same time, Mahwah police began receiving “multiple calls” from residents reporting that people who appeared to be Orthodox Jews were using the parks, although the callers did not allege any problematic conduct.
The complaint alleges the Mahwah township council’s actions violate the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“Each instance of enforcing the [parks] ordinance will subject affected persons to an unreasonable search,” the complaint asserts.
Also, the complaint charges housing discrimination: That a ban on eruvs, or threats of being issued summonses and fines for not removing the lechis that demarcate eruvs, would interfere with the ability of observant Orthodox Jews to live in Mahwah, thereby denying them housing on the basis of religion.