Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 2, 2008

DOJ Suit Alleging Village’s Discrimination Against Jewish Boarding Schools May Move Forward, Court Rules

On November 12, a federal court in New York held that a lawsuit against the Village of Airmont alleging discrimination against Jewish boarding schools was allowed to move forward. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a motion by the Village that the suit, brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), should be dismissed.

The suit filed on June 10, 2005 by the Department of Justice alleges that the village enacted a ban on boarding schools in 1993 specifically to keep Orthodox Jews from settling in the Village. At the time the ban was enacted, the Hasidic Jewish community operated boarding schools (yeshivas) in nearby areas. The suit alleges that the Village enacted the ban to keep Hasidic schools out of the village. The suit also contends that the ordinance operated to impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a particular Jewish congregation that was denied a permit to build a yeshiva in 2001. The Village moved to dismiss the United States’ complaint, arguing that it did not state a valid claim under RLUIPA, and arguing that RLUIPA is unconstitutional.

The court rejected the Village’s arguments that the United States did not state a valid RLUIPA claim. The court held that the United States stated a valid claim under section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA, which bars discrimination on the basis of religion or religious denomination, since the United States alleged that the ban on boarding schools was intended to help the Village keep out Hasidic Jews. The court noted that the United States’ claim was “substantiated by the jury verdict (and the record)” in a 1995 case, LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, which found that the Village had banned religious gatherings in homes in order to keep out Hasidic Jews, who regularly hold prayer meetings in rabbis’ homes. The court also noted that the language of the boarding-school ban specifically mentions schools “of general and religious instruction,” which “suggests that the Code’s drafters were seeking to prohibit religious schools, and perhaps yeshivas in particular, when they wrote this provision.”

The court likewise found that the United States had a valid claim under section 2(a) of RLUIPA, which bars government actions that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise without a compelling and narrowly tailored justification. The court held that the United States stated a valid claim, because the total ban on boarding schools rendered opening a yeshiva in the Village “effectively impracticable,” and, the complaint alleges, yeshivas are an important part of Hasidic Jewish religious exercise.

The court also held that Congress did not exceed its powers in enacting RLUIPA. The court held that RLUIPA was a valid exercise of Congress’s authority to regulate commerce, and a valid exercise of Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The court also held that RLUIPA does not favor religious over secular uses in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since it serves to “alleviate significant government interference with the exercise of religion.”

                                                                                            

U.S. v. Village of Airmont, 05-Civ. 5520 (SCR) (S.D.N.Y. 11/12/2008).

 

The decision can be accessed here.

 

Source:  U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Religious Freedom in Focus,” vol. 36 (November 2008).


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