Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, Over Denial of Zoning Approval for Orthodox Jewish House of Worship
The Justice Department today announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, alleging that the borough and its zoning board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow the Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation located in Woodcliff Lake, to build a new place of worship on its land in the borough.
The complaint, filed in the District of New Jersey, alleges that Woodcliff Lake’s denial of a variance imposed a substantial burden on the Valley Chabad’s religious exercise. The complaint alleges that between 2005 and 2013, the Valley Chabad sought to purchase three different sites in the borough to construct a place of worship, and that the borough took steps to thwart each attempt. The complaint also alleges that after nine years of searching for a suitable location, in 2014 the Valley Chabad sought to construct a larger place of worship at its current location in the borough. After two years, 18 hearings, and substantial revisions by Valley Chabad to address size and transportation concerns, the zoning board denied the application. The zoning board cited aesthetic concerns, the adverse impact on the “residential character of the neighborhood,” and safety issues that were undermined by the testimony of the zoning board’s own experts.
“The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. “The Department of Justice remains vigilant in its enforcement of federal civil rights laws protecting religious groups’ ability to establish places of worship without improper interference.”
“Federal law protects all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful barriers when they seek to build a place of worship,” said New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito. “According to the complaint, the Borough of Woodcliff Lake imposed a substantial burden on Valley Chabad’s religious freedom by repeatedly meddling in its attempts to purchase property in the area and citing subjective and misleading reasons to justify denying its zoning application.”
The Department of Justice today announced the “Place to Worship Initiative,” which will focus on protecting the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities—as provided by the land use provisions of the RLUIPA. As a part of the new initiative, the Department will work with the United States Attorney’s Offices to strengthen awareness of the land use provisions of RLUIPA.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. Specifically, RLUIPA bars land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise without a compelling justification, requires governments to treat houses of worship as favorably as nonreligious assemblies, and bars governments from discriminating among religions and from totally or unreasonably excluding houses of worship.
The government in this case is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael E. Campion, Chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Unit, Civil Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Millenky, Civil Division.