Written by Don Byrd

A Jewish congregation in Clifton, New Jersey reached a $2.5 million settlement with the city for damages caused by ten years of needless and discriminatory delays in their bid to build a new synagogue. The resolution, which will allow the building project to go forward, reportedly comes after attorneys outlined the city’s violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and vowed to sue under the federal law if an agreement was not reached.

As Elizabeth Kratz from the Jewish News Syndicate reports, attorneys who advocated for the synagogue celebrated the settlement, but lamented that government officials for so long based decisions on the level of outcry from a small group of constituents, rather than on fundamental principles designed to protect everyone’s rights of religious liberty.

“We were in shock. It was a textbook RLUIPA violation. A religious applicant has to be treated on equal terms with others, such as a data center or a church. The disparate treatment that came out in our review of the file really spoke for itself,” said [Shomrei Torah attorney David] Yolkut…

“Another problem that they have, which frankly I have seen in other municipalities in both synagogue cases and in eruv cases, is the board didn’t remember that their job is to do the right thing on behalf of the entire community, as opposed to a vocal minority of individuals who had bias and hatred,” said [attorney Yehudah] Buchweitz. “We’ve seen local officials in many, many towns listen to the squeaky wheel and listen to the people who have hate, and what they should have done is say, ‘No, we’re not going to listen to you. We’re going to do the right thing.’ ”

“Part of their job as a public official is stand up against bias and hatred,” said Buchweitz.

That’s right. A public forum to discuss local government matters is an important way to hear from constituents, but rights of religious freedom – like other fundamental rights – are not up for a majority vote, or subject to a heckler’s veto. That is precisely why Congress enacted RLUIPA, to bar local governments from needlessly tying up or rejecting building permit applications sought by houses of worship. It is an key protection in the law for religious – and particularly minority religious – communities. 

For more on RLUIPA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RLUIPA resource page.