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DOJ sues New York village for discriminating against Orthodox Jews



The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against the New York village of Airmont, alleging discrimination against Orthodox Jews by preventing them from building synagogues, mikvahs, religious schools, and more.


This is not the first time that Airmont, a community of 9,000 residents located 30 miles from New York City, has found itself in trouble with the DOJ. The 19-page complaint explains this is the third time since 1991 that the DOJ has sued Airmont for discriminating against its Orthodox Jewish residents. Despite the village losing both previous cases, the DOJ alleges that Airmont has continued its practices.


Acting U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss wrote,


“From its inception as an independent municipality three decades ago, the Village of Airmont has been tainted by discriminatory animus against Orthodox Jews. As found by a jury and affirmed by the Second Circuit, Airmont’s incorporation in 1991 was motivated by the desire of certain leaders to impose unlawful zoning restrictions in order to thwart the ability of their Orthodox Jewish neighbors to worship at home in accordance with their religious beliefs.”


She wrote that the village has chosen to “double down” on its discriminatory past and increase unfair zoning practices.


The DOJ lawsuit claims that Airmont has interfered with residents’ religious free exercise by adopting zoning laws that eliminate residential places of worship and make it impossible for Orthodox Jewish applicants to win zoning approval for home synagogues and schools. These laws instituted a village-wide moratorium on development and arbitrarily prevent Orthodox Jews from using their private property for religious practices such as prohibiting them from constructing sukkahs, which are ritual huts required under Orthodox Jewish belief, and mikvahs, which are ritual baths.


The complaint claims that Airmont separated from the Town of Ramapo because Ramapo had amended zoning laws to allow Orthodox Jews to construct these religious facilities. The Airmont Civic Association (ACA) allegedly “stoked fears of a ‘grim Hasidic belt’ and exhorted the virtues of ‘keeping the Hasidism out’ in forming the Village and enacting a restrictive zoning code.” The complaint also states that a member of the ACA openly admitted, “The only reason we formed this village is to keep those Jews… out of here.”


After losing the two previous lawsuits, the village was subject to oversight regarding its zoning practices. After that oversight ended in 2015, however, the village allegedly ramped up its discriminatory practices.


For example, the suit claims that in 2017, on the eve of Yom Kippur, former Mayor Philip Gigante sent Airmont’s fire inspector to his Orthodox Jewish neighbor’s house, telling him to order his neighbor to take down his sukkah, even though it violated no law or regulation. The fire inspector complied and threatened the family with eviction. In light of the threat, the family took down the sukkah.


Alleged discriminatory zoning practices have led to lengthy and costly delays for Orthodox Jewish applicants. Orthodox Jewish residents have been unable to expand religious schools, and some applicants have waited for several years for approval on projects, with one applicant still waiting since 2012.


Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said:


“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 Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined these principles in our law, and 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.”


However, Airmont has countered the suit by stating that the charges are false. In a statement, village attorney Amy Mele said, “This lawsuit by the United States Government misinterprets the Village Code and rehashes false allegations from prior lawsuits. Many of these claims have already been dismissed in court or settled amicably. The Village denies all allegations of discriminatory conduct and looks forward to defending its Code in this suit … Our goal has always been and remains to make sure that our residents have places to assemble and pray that are safe and comply with all state and local building and fire codes.”


Gigante asserts that zoning changes during his tenure were “100 percent not discriminatory.”


While these charges are certainly alarming and past rulings cast doubt on the Village’s innocence, it is also important not to try this case in the media. It is encouraging to see the DOJ fight against purported anti-Semitism and restrictions of religious liberty, but Airmont must be allowed to make a defense of their actions and intentions before being declared guilty.