MAHWAH, N.J. -- A Rockland County group on Friday filed a federal lawsuit against the township of Mahwah, citing "government interference," "hostility and rank prejudice" and an "openly anti-Semitic campaign" that violates its civil rights to construct an eruv.
The lawsuit follows an order from the Township Council to its zoning official Thursday night to issue summonses, beginning Aug. 18, for each violation of what the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association contends is an unconstitutional ordinance.
The ordinance was hastily adopted to deny its members' "rights and liberties under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and multiple federal statues," contends the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark.
The Monsey-based organization, along with two individual plaintiffs, said Orange & Rockland Utilities agreed in 2015 to allow thin PVC plastic pipes known as "lechis" be affixed to its poles for a fee.
These create an eruv, or enclosure, within which Jews who "are confied to wheelchairs or who have small children or relatives confined to wheelchairs" can push strollers or wheelchairs to attend services on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur -- when pushing or carrying objects outside the home is prohibited by their religious beliefs, the lawsuit says.
The suit cites "scores" of eruvin in New Jersey and New York -- including in Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties, as well as in Rockland, Westchester, and all five New York City boroughs.
They exist in Bergenfield, Englewood, Fort Lee, New Milford, Paramus, Passaic, Clifton, Rutherford, Teaneck and Tenafly -- as well as in dozens of major cities throughout the U.S. and Washington, D.C., and at Princeton and Rutgers universities, the lawsuit says.
The eruv created on 120 poles in Mahwah is an extention of one already in place in Rockland County, the plaintiffs wrote.
Work had begun in Mahwah earlier this year when township police ordered a private contractor to stop work until they could provide traffic and construction protection, their suit contends.
The work resumed on June 21, with the group paying township police $2,525.38 for protection, the lawsuit says, adding that the eruv covers "only a minute portion of Mahwah."
As a result, for the past five Sabbaths, it says, group members have "been able to more fully practice their religion" -- carrying prayer books and shawls to and from their synagogue, as well as "food, games, gifts and books to the homes of fellow community members."
By demanding that the ervu be removed and authorizing township police to issue summonses, the Council "threatened the plaintiffs' constitutional, civil and contractural rights," the suit says.
Police haven't issued summonses: Police Chief James Batelli has said the eruv was lawfully constructed after proof of insurance was provided.
Mayor William Laforet has opposed the efforts to remove the installation, saying that to do otherwise would violate federal law.
Council members, however, produced an ordinance last month that bans affixing "any sign, advertisement, notice, poster, paper, device or other matter to any public utility pole...except as may be authorized or required by law."
The group contends that Township Council President Robert Hermansen "openly acknowledged the discriminatory, prejudicial and invidious motivation behind the proposed ordinance" in a Facebook post.
In it, the group says Hermansen wrote: "We started researching all the different places in different towns that have been affected by this issue and things that were unsuccessful and potentially successful in those towns. We then started working on the ordinances and looking at ordinances that would be effective [for] our township."
The lawsuit also lists comments from a petition circulated in the township, which include:
- "Get those scum out of here."
- "They are clearly trying to annex land like they've been doing in Occupied Palestine."
- "They think they can do whatever the hell they want and we'll be knwn as a dirty town if they move in."
- "I don't want my town to be gross and infested with these nasty people."
Similar comments were posted on the "Mahwah Strong" and "Concerned Mahwah Citizens" Facebook pages, the lawsuit alleges.
Some have even threatened vandalism, the group says -- citing four areas in which the eruv was damaged -- and even violence ("we have Smith and Wesson. This battle has only just begun").
SEE: Mahwah Eruvs Vandalized, Investigated As Bias Crime
And although council members warned residents to mind their manners, the group contends that they allowed several "to express derisive and hateful sentiments against those [who] would benefit from the eruv" during a public meeting last month.
By contrast, the lawsuit alleges, the council "suppressed any remarks from pro-eruv attendees, such as a representative of the Simon Wisenthal Center...an elderly Holocaust survivor who sought to warn about the dangers or unchecked religious intolerance."
Then came Thursday night's meeting.
The council went into closed session, then returned to approve a motion authoritizing the zoning official to issue summonses for each lechi as a violation of the new sign ordinance.
Laforet urged council members to delay any action for two weeks so that discussions could be held, but the vote was taken anyway, the group noted.
Hermansen told residents the eruv is "a Rockland County issue" and a "New York problem," which drew "raucous applause," the lawsuit contends.
The non-profit group from Rockland says its members live right near the Mahwah border.
If the lechis are removed, it says, they "would immediately lose access to the eruv, and accordingly would be unable to push or carry any objects...outside their homes on the Sabbath and Yom Kippuer.
"If even one week passes without an eruv, [they] will be deprived of the ability to fully and freely practice their religion...."
The "discriminatory, hostile and prejudicial intent of this proposed ordinance is all-too-obvious," the suit alleges.
There are other signs in town, it says, citing "for sale," "lost dog," "garage sale" and others.
The group, which also has sued Upper Saddle River under similar circumstances, cited several municipalities that have been overruled by state and federal courts -- including Tenafly.
The township eruv "presents no aesthetic, safety, traffic, fiscal or other concern to Mahwah," the lawsuit contends.
Township officials are denying group members their civil rights under the Constitution "to freely practice their religion," it argues.
The suit asks a federal judge to rule the ordinance unconstitutional and stop township officials from continuing to either remove the existing lechis or prevent more from being constructed.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE LAWSUIT:
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