This December marks two years since First Liberty and the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several residents, including three Orthodox Jewish rabbis, alleging that the Village of Airmont engaged in systematic discrimination forcing Orthodox Jewish residents to practice their faith in hiding in a deliberate effort to dissuade them from staying in or moving to the Village.
Now, the U.S. Department of Justice has joined this essential fight by filing a federal lawsuit against the Village, alleging religious discrimination against the Orthodox Jewish community.
“It’s time for Village officials to reverse their unlawful decisions that keep our clients from peacefully practicing their faith in their homes,” said Keisha Russell, Counsel at First Liberty Institute. “With the assistance of the Department of Justice, we hope to put an end to Airmont’s practice of religious discrimination once and for all.”
Incorporated in 1991, the Village “born in bigotry” in Rockland County, along with its discriminatory zoning policies, have been the subject of civil rights lawsuits spanning five presidential administrations. That same year of its inception, then-U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr filed suit against Airmont for religious discrimination against the Orthodox community.
“This kind of conduct—creating a new community with the intent to exclude groups because of their religious beliefs and practices—is wholly antithetical to basic freedoms upon which this nation was founded,” said Barr at the time.
According to a NY Times article from December 2018, immediately following Barr’s initial lawsuit, Airmont’s founders claimed that they simply wanted “strong zoning” to help preserve the “character” of their neighborhood. However, many of the 9,500 longtime residents said they proposed the ban on home synagogues because of the “hubbub” they bring to the neighborhood, especially on the Sabbath.
In addition, Barr’s lawsuit further charged “that other individuals acting at the behest of the defendants have engaged in a pattern of harassment against Orthodox Jews in the village.”
Keep in mind these were the same arguments levied against another First Liberty client, Rabbi Yaakov and Congregation Toras Chaim (CTC) in North Dallas.
If you remember, this small home synagogue of twenty or so members faced many of the same criticisms and allegations from their local homeowners association and disgruntled neighborhood residents, who cited, in particular, the amount of traffic and parked cars on the street…even though Orthodox Jewish worshippers, due to the tenets of their faith, do not drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays.
At one point, someone vandalized Rabbi Rich’s car by spray-painting a swastika on it. So much for tolerance.
Eventually, the city of Dallas filed a lawsuit accusing the congregation of violating local parking regulations. The lawsuit requested crippling civil penalties of $1,000 per day per alleged infraction. Infractions included the congregation’s lack of parking spaces and one disabled parking space—again, despite the fact that members of the congregation do not drive on their Sabbath or Jewish holidays. Ultimately, on August 21, 2019, First Liberty Institute ended the five-year legal battle by reaching a settlement between CTC and the City of Dallas.
In this latest Airmont case, we can see those same fault lines dating back over nearly three decades.
First, local officials are unfairly attempting to prevent a very small Orthodox Jewish community from conducting religious services by imposing burdensome zoning and other restrictions upon their place of worship.
Second, and perhaps even more troubling, is the harassment and intimidation by local neighbors. Just like Rabbi Yaakov in Dallas, Chaim Friedman, an Orthodox Rabbi in Airmont, also claimed that in addition to being harassed, a visitor’s car was vandalized by neighbors just because they didn’t want him building a small synagogue next to their house.
As tonight marks the end of 2020’s Hanukkah celebration, let’s hope that this season also signals something more for this small community of the Jewish Orthodox, as well as for people of all faiths.
Rabbi Yaakow said it best: “I pray that today marks the beginning of a new era of tolerance and peace in our community.”