NJ Attorney General Announces Settlement of Discrimination Lawsuit That Centered on Ordinances in Mahwah Twp.
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced today that the State and Mahwah Township have entered into a settlement agreement that resolves a lawsuit brought by the State in 2017 after Mahwah adopted two allegedly discriminatory ordinances -- one banning non-residents from using Mahwah’s public parks, the other banning the posting of “lechis” on utility poles located within the municipality. Lechis are plastic strips that denote the boundaries of an eruv used by Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jews.
Officials say Mahwah has repealed the two ordinances at issue in the State’s original complaint against the Township and, as part of the settlement being announced today, agreed not to adopt any future ordinances that impose similar, discriminatory restrictions. The settlement is still subject to final court review and approval. Under the settlement, Mahwah Township is liable for a suspended payment to the State of $350,000. Liability for the payment will be vacated within four years, provided the Township engages in no unlawful conduct during that time, and that it complies with all terms and conditions of the agreement announced today. For the next four years, the Township also must provide the Division on Civil Rights at least 30 days advance notice of any vote on a proposed ordinance affecting public access to its parks and recreational facilities. Under the settlement, the same 30-day advance reporting obligation applies to any ordinance affecting placement of “signs, devices or any material whatsoever” on utility poles located within Mahwah Township. The settlement also includes a number of record-keeping requirements for the Township over the next four years, including creation and maintenance of a compendium of all complaints and reports it receives about use of the township’s parks and recreational facilities. Under the agreement, the Township must report to the State on a quarterly basis the number of complaints and/or reports it has received, and a list of actions or interventions taken in response to such complaints or reports. The Township also has agreed to investigate all incidents of material damage to lechis placed on utility poles in the municipality as “potential criminal acts of vandalism” unless there is good cause to blame the “weather or accidental contact.” The State filed a Superior Court complaint against the Mahwah Township Council and the Township of Mahwah in 2017 alleging that, in an effort to stave off a feared influx of Orthodox Jewish persons from outside New Jersey, it had approved two unlawful ordinances. Filed in Superior Court in Bergen County, the State’s nine-count complaint was filed on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, the Division on Civil Rights and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The Complaint charged that the Mahwah Township Council, influenced largely by vocal anti-Orthodox-Jewish sentiment expressed by some residents at public meetings and on social media, engaged in unlawful discrimination aimed at halting an unwanted “infiltration” by Orthodox Jews -- particularly from neighboring Rockland County, NY. According to the Complaint, the Mahwah parks ordinance at issue unlawfully discriminated by banning non-New-Jersey-residents from using Mahwah’s public parks, and also violated the terms of Green Acres grant funding provided to the Township for many years. The second ordinance at issue – actually an ordinance amendment – unlawfully discriminated by effectively banning the posting, on utility poles, of the plastic strips called “lechis,” the Complaint charged. The complaint noted that an eruv is a designated geographical area within which Jews who hold certain religious beliefs may push or carry objects – such as a stroller, wheelchair, keys or identification – during the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) and during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. For those who hold these beliefs, the complaint noted, the act of pushing or carrying objects on the Sabbath or Yom Kippur is permitted only inside the home or within the confines of a properly established eruv. An eruv is commonly created by affixing thin plastic strips known as lechis to utility poles to mark the boundaries of the area. In 2015, the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association sought to extend an existing eruv in Rockland County, NY, to cover the full southern part of Rockland County. The proposed path of the extension included areas within a portion of Mahwah Township near the New York border. The State’s complaint alleged that, despite approval of the posting of lechis on its utility poles in Mahwah by Orange & Rockland Utilities -- and despite the township having struck a formal agreement to ensure security and traffic control by Mahwah Police in May 2017 while the posting work went on – the Township Council forged ahead in July 2017 and approved an illegal amendment to its sign ordinance effectively banning lechis on utility poles.
As amended, the sign ordinance – which previously banned simply “signs” on utility poles -- included expanded language prohibiting the posting of “any device or other matter” not only on utility poles, but also on shade trees, lamp posts, curbstones, sidewalks, or upon any public structure or building in Mahwah.