Mahwah and NJ Attorney General’s Office settle eruv, parks discrimination lawsuit
Mahwah has agreed to repeal one ordinance called “discriminatory” against Orthodox Jews, and not enact another, to settle a civil lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office last October.
Mahwah had already repealed the ordinance passed last June that prohibited out-of-state residents from using its parks. For the settlement agreement, township officials agreed that the repeal from December 2017 would remain in effect, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
The “Mahwah parks ordinance at issue unlawfully discriminated by banning non-New-Jersey-residents from using Mahwah’s public parks and also violated the terms of Green Acres grant funding provided to the Township for many years,” the Attorney General’s Office said.
The township also agreed not to adopt a second ordinance, introduced last year, that would have expanded a ban to prohibit the posting of signs on utility poles to include lechis, or plastic pipe attached to mark the borders of an Orthodox Jewish religious border known as an eruv.
Last July, Mahwah officials asked that a New York Jewish group take down the eruv pipe from utility poles around town. Within an eruv, Orthodox Jews can do tasks and activities forbidden on the Sabbath.
As part of the settlement, the township must advise Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in writing of any new ordinance proposals affecting use of parks, or signage on utility poles, for the next four years.
The township also has agreed to investigate all incidents of damage to lechis placed on utility poles as “potential criminal acts of vandalism” unless there is good cause to blame the “weather or accidental contact.”
In addition, the settlement requires the mayor and Township Council to issue a joint public statement affirming that its park and recreational facilities laws as well as solicitation laws will be enforced in “an even-handed and non-discriminatory manner.”
A proposed $350,000 fine has been suspended, but the township will be liable for the fine, in addition to legal fees and other costs, if it violates the terms of the agreement during the next four years.
Yehudah Buchweitz, attorney for the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association, which sued the town in August, said, “We commend the New Jersey attorney general for standing up for religious freedom,” and congratulated his office on the settlement.
“The people of the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association have been enjoying religious freedom for over a year now in part because of the great efforts of people like the New Jersey attorney general,” Buchweitz wrote in an email.
Mahwah Mayor William Laforet and council President Robert Hermansen blame each other for the lawsuit.
Laforet said the council should have sought guidance before introducing the two ordinances. Hermansen countered that the ordinance was passed “with the support of the mayor.”
The attorney general filed the nine-count lawsuit against Mahwah and its council last October. The council withdrew the parks ordinance on Dec. 15.
“They [council members] have asserted for the better part of a year and a half that they were never told not to proceed,” Laforet wrote in an email. “This statement is blatantly false.”
“While the Attorney General’s Office or Mayor Laforet may characterize this settlement agreement as an admission by the council that we previously did something wrong, in fact it provides for something we requested before we even passed the ordinance that the state found so offensive: a dialogue,” Hermansen said Monday.
Hermansen said “a phone call and a meeting, either before or after the subpoena was served, would have been welcome.”
“Instead, they sued us,” he said.
The attorney general filed a Superior Court complaint against Mahwah and its council last October alleging that in an effort to stave off a “feared influx of Orthodox Jewish persons from outside New Jersey,” it had passed or proposed two unlawful ordinances.
“Influenced largely by vocal anti-Orthodox-Jewish sentiment expressed by some residents at public meetings and on social media,” Mahwah engaged in unlawful discrimination, the complaint said.
Source: North Jersey Record