Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Village of Airmont, for Zoning Restrictions that Target the Orthodox Jewish Community

Airmont, New York - The Justice Department Wednesday announced that it filed a lawsuit against the Village of Airmont, New York, alleging that it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by targeting the Orthodox Jewish community through zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and home synagogues, and by enforcing its zoning code in a discriminatory manner to prevent Orthodox Jews from using their property consistent with their faith.

“In this country, states, towns, and villages cannot make or enforce any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of American citizens, nor can they deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined these principles in our law, and the Congress extended them when it enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Zoning ordinances that seek to exclude people and organizations because of their religion violate the law. Furthermore, targeting Orthodox Jewish individuals for the purpose of excluding them from a community is both illegal and a direct assault on this Nation’s fundamental values. This unlawful anti-Semitic conduct is wholly unacceptable in the United States of America, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not tolerate it. The Department of Justice will continue to use the full force of its authority to stop this despicable conduct and prevent its recurrence.”

“As a jury found over two decades ago, the Village of Airmont was born out of a spirit of animus against a religious minority,”  said Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss. “Sadly, rather than working to overcome that shameful legacy, Airmont has flagrantly ignored the terms of a court judgment and implemented land use practices that by design and operation are again meant to infringe unlawfully on the rights of a minority religious community. Religious discrimination will not be tolerated. We will remain vigilant to ensure that the right to worship freely and without undue interference is protected for all.”  

The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the Village adopted a zoning code that, in violation of the terms of a prior federal court judgment, eliminated residential places of worship as by-right uses and applied its code in a manner that made it impossible for members of the Orthodox Jewish community to obtain approval for religious schools and home synagogues. The complaint also alleges that the Village implemented an 18-month moratorium used to prevent the Orthodox Jewish community from advancing religious zoning applications, and interpreted and enforced its zoning code to prevent Orthodox Jews from using their property to construct Sukkahs, ritual huts required under Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and Mikvahs, ritual baths necessary for religious observance.    

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.