Justice Department reaches agreement with New Jersey town after accusations of religious zoning bias

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Aerial view of Toms River, N.J. Credit: Tom Aballo/Shutterstock.

Toms River, which was accused of placing unreasonable burdens on its growing Orthodox population, will modify its zoning code to reduce the “minimum acreage” for a house of worship from 10 acres to two.

 The U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement on Tuesday with the Township of Toms River, N.J., stemming from allegations that the town’s zoning laws had unfairly targeted Jewish houses of worship and violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Justice Department had put Toms River officials on notice back in September that they had completed an investigation into allegations that the town’s zoning rules placed unreasonable burdens on the growing Orthodox Jewish population in the township. Particularly problematic was a 2017 change to the zoning requirements that houses of worship needed to be built on properties of at least 10 acres.

“Federal law protects religious communities against unequal treatment and unwarranted burdens,” said Rachael A. Honig, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “Zoning regulations that impose unreasonable restrictions or prevent religious faiths from having a place to worship violate RLUIPA. Through the resolution entered today, this office takes another step to put an end to unlawful zoning practices and vindicate the civil rights of minority religious communities in … New Jersey.”

Orthodox Jews from the heavily populated town of Lakewood, N.J., have been migrating to neighborhoods in Toms River in recent years. However, they have been largely unable to build Jewish institutions in the township because of the existing zoning requirements.

As part of the agreement, which needs to be approved by the U.S. District Court, Toms River will modify its zoning code to reduce the “minimum acreage” required for a house of worship from 10 acres to two acres; treat houses of worship comparable to other nonreligious places of assembly, including funeral homes and private clubs; and train township officials and employees about RLUIPA requirements and how to respond to RLUIPA complaints.

Attorney Marci Hamilton, who is an expert in RLUIPA litigation and had been retained by Toms River to deal with the Justice Department’s complaint, addressed the Township Council on Tuesday night prior to their vote on entering into an agreement with the DOJ.

As Hamilton told the council members, “the Justice Department was right—2107 was not Toms River’s best moment.”

She added that the DOJ “was going to come down with hammer” on the township based on its findings.

Not everyone is pleased with the agreement.

Town Councilman Daniel Rodrick, who was the only council member to vote against the agreement, told a local newspaper that the township should have continued its fight against the DOJ.

On the other side, a group called the Toms River Jewish Community Council issued a statement claiming that the settlement “falls short” of its goal to “alleviate the burden on the Orthodox Jewish community’s ability to freely exercise its religious freedoms” because it does not account for those areas where the community cannot find large-enough parcels of land to build synagogues.

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