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The Ocean County Courthouse in Toms River.

Toms River, Department of Justice reach agreement on religious zoning rules

By Nikita Biryukov, March 10 2021 12:22 pm

Toms River reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig announced Wednesday.

A proposed consent decree filed in federal court earlier Wednesday would dismiss a lawsuit, also filed today, charging Toms River illegally limited where religious assemblies and houses of worship could be located.

“Federal law protects religious communities against unequal treatment and unwarranted burdens,” Honig said. “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 the District of New Jersey.”

The department’s complaint alleges Toms River altered its zoning code to reduce the number of houses of worship and land available for the same, including a requirement that any such sites be placed on a parcel of land at least 10 acres in size.

The limits disproportionately impacted the Orthodox Jewish population, who for various reasons favor smaller sites, the federal suit said. The complaint further claimed zoning ordinances in Toms River treated religious institutions less favorably than secular ones.

As part of the agreement, the minimum acreage requirement will be reduced by 80%, to two acres, and will allow religious institutions to be placed in a broader set of locations. The town’s council approved the acreage reduction on Tuesday.

It’ll also require officials in Ocean County town of about 92,000 undergo training on RLUIPA, the federal law that bars discriminatory land use regulations.

“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths in their right to exercise their religion,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice has long enforced RLUIPA against zoning regulations that unreasonably burden religious exercise by imposing unwarranted restrictions and conditions on the location of houses of worship.”

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