The state’s top law enforcement official today accused Jackson Township of discriminating against Orthodox Jews by using their zoning powers to stop them from moving there.
Alleging that municipal officials sought to assuage local concerns over the growing Orthodox community by expressing hate and fear on social media, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a civil rights lawsuit has been filed against the municipality.
“Bias and hate have no home in New Jersey, and we will not allow some vocal residents’ intolerance to drive local government decisions,” Grewal said. “Like all public servants, municipal officials have a duty to uphold the law, not weaponize it against specific groups because of what they believe or how they worship. Today’s lawsuit should send that message to anyone in New Jersey who needs to hear it.”
Mayor Michael Reina is named in the lawsuit, along with the township council and the planning and zoning boards.
“Since around 2015, a vocal group of Jackson residents have complained to the township about the number of Orthodox Jews moving to Jackson. These resident complaints often expressed a generalized animus against Orthodox Jewish people, culture, and religious practice,” the lawsuit alleges. “Residents wrote to Township officials raising alarm about an “extremist religious group” seeking to “take over our town” and “destroy our neighborhoods.” Residents amplified these grievances through social media with hateful rhetoric, saying that “the gang war has begun” and “[w]e need to get rid of them like Hitler did.”
Several Jackson officials allegedly sympathized with residents’ frustration and concern that Jackson was “becoming a subdivision of Lakewood,” the compliant says.
Officials developed a plan to pass and enforce local zoning ordinances that might dissuade Orthodox Jews from living in Jackson because of challenges to the observance of their religion, court records show.
In the complaint, the state alleges that former Zoning Board of Adjustment member John Burrows used Facebook to attack Orthodox Jews and call for action against them.
“He called Orthodox Jews “filthy f’ing cockroaches” and wondered what to do about ‘the scourge of the cockroaches from the east,” the complaint noted, referring to Lakewood being directly east of Jackson.
According to the complaint, Burrows “bemoaned politicians beholden to ‘the mischievous will of the Lakewood cult,’ and “beg[ged]” residents ‘to confront or accost the council members’ to ‘quell’ the ‘tsunami of orthodoxy that is mounting at the border.”
“He warned that Orthodox Jews ‘will only destroy what we know as Jackson and make it an extension of Lakewood,’ and that ‘[t]hey are on target for a repeat of the 1930s,’” court records show.
The lawsuit alleges that Jackson officials abused their power to regulate land use and housing as a way of disrupting Orthodox Jewish life in the township and making it difficult for residents to observe their religion.
“This lawsuit shows that the Attorney General and the Division on Civil Rights stand ready to address discrimination in all its forms, whenever and wherever it occurs throughout the state,” said Aaron Scherzer, Chief of Strategic Initiatives and Enforcement at the Division on Civil Rights. “We will not allow municipalities to discriminate against residents because of their religious beliefs or to take actions based on residents’ intolerance. Instead, as we confront a rising tide of bias across the state and around the country, we need our local leaders to set an example for how to address intolerance and persistent othering.”
The director of the Division of Civil Rights, Rachel Wainer Apter, is Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee for Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. She was not quoted in a press release from the attorney general’s office.
In 2019, Wainer Apter played a key role in convincing Facebook to remove a group called Rise Up Ocean County for violating hate speech standards.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in May 2020 alleging that Jackson’s ordinances barring yeshivas and dormitories violate the Fair Housing Act and the Religious Land Use Act.