June 15, 2018 / 8:18 PM / 6 months ago

Trump's Justice Department backs Orthodox Jews in zoning battle

NEW YORK, June 15 (Reuters) - Valley Chabad, a growing Orthodox Jewish congregation in a leafy New Jersey suburb west of Manhattan, has spent 13 years fighting to gain approval from local officials to build a new house of worship.

The legal saga has now become a battle between the small town of Woodcliff Lake and the U.S. government, which filed a lawsuit this week supporting the synagogue under a longstanding federal statute that protects houses of worship from discriminatory or burdensome zoning regulations.

The lawsuit is the first brought by the Trump administration under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it was part of a broader effort to protect religious liberty, a theme likely to resonate with President Donald Trump’s conservative Christian supporters.

A lawyer for the town said the evidence would show Valley Chabad’s application was rejected due to the size of its proposed building, rather than any religious discrimination.

The government’s lawsuit said the town’s zoning decisions, while appearing neutral on the surface, went too far in denying the application, rather than addressing specific concerns about parking and flooding via minor modifications.

Roman Storzer, whose law firm represents Valley Chabad, said town officials frequently use zoning laws as a way of preventing religious institutions from expanding, despite the federal act.

“You have local government, opponents who don’t want development of certain religions, taking proactive measures,” he said.

The lawsuit said Valley Chabad had three separate deals to purchase property scuttled after town officials interceded to either convert the lots to open space or change the zoning.

The congregation currently uses a 3,200-square-foot (297 square meter) house that it says is too small for its growing size, including the need for a mikvah, a ritual immersion bath for women, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint also asserted that a municipal official expressed concern in the early 2000s that Valley Chabad’s presence would transform Woodcliff Lake into a town like Monsey, New York, which hosts a large Orthodox Jewish population. Other New Jersey towns have struggled with similar clashes over cultural identity.

In response, the town’s attorney, Ron Dario, said there was no evidence the town’s actions caused Valley Chabad to walk away from the earlier projects. The current plans, he said, call for a building that is simply too big for a single-family plot.

“The fact that the zoning application required two dozen variances shows how ill-suited the property is for their proposed use,” he said in a statement. “We maintain that our borough is non-discriminatory and welcoming for people of all faiths.”

But the town is fighting an uphill battle.

The Justice Department virtually never fails to secure zoning approval in cases in which it intervenes. In fact, simply opening an investigation can often be enough to persuade municipalities to change positions, according to Daniel Dalton, a Michigan-based lawyer who specializes in RLUIPA cases.

Zoning ordinances have grown more exacting in recent years, as municipal officials have prioritized maintaining a robust tax base, Dalton said. Religious institutions are generally exempt from property taxes in U.S. states.

In announcing the case, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also launched a Justice Department initiative to raise awareness about the new law and provide training to federal prosecutors.

In a speech to an Orthodox Jewish group on Wednesday, Sessions framed RLUIPA as part of a broader mandate to protect religious liberty. He cited the Supreme Court’s decision this month in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple as an example of supporting religious freedom.

It is not clear whether the initiative will lead the Justice Department to intervene in more cases.

Between September 2010 and December 2016 under former President Barack Obama, the department filed 12 RLUIPA lawsuits, though it also opened dozens of land-use investigations and filed several friend-of-the-court briefs in private cases.

In a July 2016 report, the administration also noted a “troubling” rise in cases involving Muslims in particular. The percentage of RLUIPA investigations involving Muslims rose from 14 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 38 percent between 2010 and 2016. In the last few months of 2016, the Obama administration filed four lawsuits on behalf of mosques that were denied zoning permits.

The Trump administration has been harshly criticized by Muslim leaders, who say the president’s heated rhetoric has encouraged hate crimes and that his immigration restrictions target Muslim-majority countries.

The Justice Department said it meets every quarter with Muslim, Sikh and South Asian groups to discuss its efforts and their concerns.

White House officials have said Trump’s comments on Islam and immigration reflect his commitment to national security, not any racial animus. (Reporting by Joseph Ax Editing by Tom Brown)

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