Justice Department Settles Claims Against Borough of Woodcliff Lake Involving Denial of Permit to Orthodox Jewish Group to Construct Worship Center
September 15, 2020
The Justice Department today announced an agreement with the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Borough violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish congregation to construct a worship center on its property.
The proposed consent decree, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court of the District of New Jersey and must still be approved by the court, would resolve a lawsuit filed by the United States against the Borough, which alleged that the Borough had prevented Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation that has worshiped in the borough for over 20 years, from constructing a new house of worship. A separate settlement agreement and proposed consent decree have resolved a related lawsuit filed by Valley Chabad against the borough.
“For more than four centuries, religious people from all over the world have sought refuge here,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “Often, these people did so to escape persecution by monarchs, dictators, and other despots. Then, when our ancestors established the United States of America, the Founders adopted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and thereby enacted into law the right of all people to exercise religion. Two decades ago, the Congress extended these protections when it passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That law protects religious people and their institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. The United States is, and must always remain, committed to the right of all people to practice their faith and worship together. The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to fight against any unlawful deprivation of the right of all people to practice their faith. As our ancestors did four centuries ago, today, religious people often gather and worship with those who share their faith. Through this agreement, the Valley Chabad and its members will be able to build a house of worship and to exercise their right to practice their religion freely.”
“RLUIPA protects the rights of every religious community to worship free of unlawful burdens,” said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, District of New Jersey. “As our office continues to vigorously protect the civil rights of the Jewish community and all religious communities in our district, we will use every tool at our disposal, including pursuing court-enforceable injunctive remedies. Through our actions today, we have taken steps to ensure that Valley Chabad and its members will no longer face unlawful barriers in their practice of religion.”
The complaint alleged that Woodcliff Lake violated RLUIPA by imposing a substantial burden on Valley Chabad’s religious exercise when, on three occasions between 2006 and 2013, Valley Chabad attempted to purchase parcels of property in the borough in order to construct a house of worship and meeting center, called a Chabad house, large enough to meet its needs. In each instance, the borough purchased or re-zoned the parcels, preventing development of a Chabad house. The complaint also alleges that this conduct and the borough’s eventual denial of Valley Chabad’s application for zoning relief to expand on its current property burdened Valley Chabad’s ability to worship freely without furthering a compelling government interest.
As part of the consent decree, the borough will permit Valley Chabad to construct a new Chabad house on its property. The resolution would also enjoin the borough from acting in a manner that violates RLUIPA and require the borough to establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA complaints, train its employees on RLUIPA’s requirements, and submit regular reports to the United States and the court on its compliance. In the separate agreement that resolves the related private action, the borough agreed to pay Valley Chabad $1.5 million to resolve its claims for damages and attorney’s fees that arose from the borough’s conduct.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.
People who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.
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 of the Civil Rights Unit, Civil Division.