The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against Woodcliff Lake for denying zoning approval to an Orthodox Jewish congregation who wanted to build a new house of worship.
Woodcliff Lake officials took steps to keep Valley Chabad from building on three separate sites over the course of eight years, according to the lawsuit.
Borough Attorney Ron Dario declined to comment on the 17-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court of New Jersey.
When Valley Chabad tried to buy properties between 2005 and 2013, the borough blocked their attempts by expressing interest in rezoning or acquiring the sites through eminent domain — after Valley Chabad was under contract to purchase them, the suit said. The borough eventually acquired two of the properties and rezoned the third, according to the complaint.
After its failed attempts to relocate, Valley Chabad submitted variance applications to the Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board to build a structure larger than its 3,194 square foot, one-and-a-half story building on Overlook Drive. The congregation has operated there since 1998 on a 1.27 acre site.
Two years, 18 hearings, and various revisions by Valley Chabad to address size and transportation issues, resulted in a denial of the application by the zoning board.
The board rejected the application because of concerns about aesthetics, an adverse impact on the character of the residential neighborhood and safety — which, the lawsuit says, were undermined by the board’s own experts’ testimony.
The Zoning Board also had concerns about parking limitations that resulted in a 2016 ordinance — enacted two years after Valley Chabad’s application. And the board falsely characterized testimony from a Valley Chabad rabbi about prior crowd control attempts when it said Valley Chabad would not abide by occupancy limits proposed in the application, the lawsuit claims.
“We’re very grateful the DOJ has chosen to become involved and defend the rights to worship in New Jersey and in Woodcliff Lake, in particular,” said Roman Storzer, an attorney for Valley Chabad.
The congregation filed its own federal lawsuit against the borough in Nov. 2016, which is now in the discovery phase, he said.
“In essence they’re both addressing the same issue, the fact that the Chabad’s religious exercise has been burdened as a result of the borough’s action,” Storzer said.
The municipality requires that houses of worship have a minimum lot size of 3 acres. Between that, setbacks and environmental restrictions, “we’re arguing there’s no place where the Chabad could locate a house of worship,” Storzer said.
The U.S. Attorney’s lawsuit also alleges that in the early 2000s the Valley Chabad community, through conversations between Rabbi Dov Drizin and a borough official, became aware of concerns that the Orthodox Jewish congregation’s presence would transform the borough into a town similar to Monsey, NY — which has a large Jewish population. The borough official, who is not named in the lawsuit, asked the rabbi for a letter explaining how Valley Chabad differs from the religious community in Monsey, the lawsuit says.
“The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“The Department of Justice remains vigilant in its enforcement of federal civil rights laws protecting religious groups’ ability to establish places of worship without improper interference.”
The Department of Justice, also on Wednesday, announced the “Place to Worship Initiative” that will focus on rights of religious institutions to build, expand, buy or rent facilities as provided within the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
The DOJ will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to strengthen awareness of the land use laws, particularly that it bars regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise without compelling justification, requires governments to treat houses of worship equally as nonreligious entities and prohibits governments from discriminating against or excluding houses of worship.