US/World News

Justice Dept. reaches agreement with NJ town accused of religious bias

(JNS) The U.S. Justice Department reached an agreement on March 9 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. “Zoning regulations that impose unreasonable restrictions or prevent religious faiths from having a place to worship violate RLUIPA,” said Rachael A. Honig, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “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 who have been moving to neighborhoods in Toms River in recent years 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, told the Township Council prior to their vote on entering into an agreement with the DOJ that “the Justice Department was right” and that the DOJ “was going to come down with hammer” on the township based on its findings. Town Councilman Daniel Rodrick was the only council member to vote against the agreement, saying that the township should have continued its fight against the DOJ.

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

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