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The Justice Department announced today that it has obtained a consent decree with the village of Airmont, New York (Airmont), resolving the United States’ lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The lawsuit alleged that Airmont had revised its zoning code in 2018 to discriminate against Orthodox Jewish residents and make it more difficult for them to worship in their own homes. The consent decree increases the amount of space in private homes that can be used for worship, removes restrictions that limited who residents are allowed to invite into their own homes to pray and eliminates the use of an arbitrary, drawn-out application process designed to delay and effectively deny permits for even minor alterations to private houses. Since 1991, this is the third lawsuit brought by the United States against Airmont for discriminating against the Orthodox Jewish community.
“Zoning laws that intentionally make it more difficult to engage in religious worship and that are designed to impair the rights of obstruct religious communities violate federal law,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This settlement should send a message to officials across the country that we will hold them accountable when they abuse zoning restrictions to stop religious communities from freely exercising their faith. The Justice Department will tirelessly defend the right of all faiths and religions to worship in the manner consistent with their religious beliefs and traditions.”
“When religious intolerance poses a threat to the unity of this nation of many faiths and traditions, it is vital to stand up for the First Amendment right to freedom of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “While we are pleased that Airmont has agreed to settle this matter, the fact that this is the third time we have sued the Village over similar concerns demonstrates that this office will be ever vigilant in protecting the rights of religious minorities.”
This consent decree follows the department’s announcement commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the signing of RLUIPA. The department will host a series of outreach events and has released updated informational materials about RLUIPA to provide an overview of the law and the department’s enforcement efforts, as well as information about how to identify and report violations. The department’s first RLUIPA outreach event will take place at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey, on Oct. 30. For more information about these events, please see the department’s RLUIPA website. All events will be open to the public.
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. RLUIPA authorizes the department to commence an action against any local government that implements a land use regulation that places a substantial burden on religious exercise, discriminates on the basis of religion, treats religious land uses worse than nonreligious assemblies or totally or unreasonable excludes religious land use. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.
Individuals who believe they have been subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (833) 591-0291 or may submit a complaint through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.