FIRST REPORT: One of the Largest-ever recoveries under RLUIPA announced for Congregation Shomrei Torah of Clifton, NJ

It was announced moments ago that one of the largest-ever recoveries under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), has been settled on behalf of Congregation Shomrei Torah of Clifton, NJ.

The land use provisions of RLUIPA protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. As the Department of Justice has underscored, religious assemblies, especially smaller ones, may be illegally discriminated against on the face of zoning codes and also in the highly individualized and discretionary processes of local land use regulation.

In this case, the Congregation’s application to build a house of worship and adjoining mikva (a ritual bath) within walking distance of its Orthodox Jewish membership in Clifton – a project spearheaded by the Congregation’s President, David Gross – who also serves as Co Chair of Agudath Israel NJ office, was subject to excessive delay and disparate treatment relative to many other applicants.  The process included 25 planning board meetings between 2013 and 2015, seven zoning board meetings between 2008 and 2013, and four separate trips to state court.  In October 2015, following years of delay to that point, the Clifton Planning Board approved only a 7,000-foot Synagogue—less than half the size originally sought by the Congregation.  Nearly two years later, the parties entered into a consent decree to resolve the Congregation’s state court lawsuit challenging the Planning Board’s limited approval, pursuant to which the Planning Board agreed to a final site plan of no more than 12,245 square feet. As part of the Consent Decree, the Congregation reserved the right to later pursue redress under RLUIPA, for which it engaged Weil on a pro bono basis.

In March 2018, Weil notified the City that as a result of the decade-long delay, the Congregation had sustained, among other things, excess professional fees, construction costs, and costs associated with the development and occupancy of an alternative site.  After Weil provided the City with a detailed draft complaint that it was prepared to file in federal district court, the parties agreed to mediate the matter before former New Jersey Attorney General, Christopher Porrino, which proved successful.

Following a unanimous vote of the City Council on January 3, 2019, the City has agreed to pay $2.5 million to the Congregation, and it will also install a sidewalk on certain portions of the Congregation’s side of Dwasline Road necessary for the safety of congregants and all those in the immediate neighborhood. This settlement avoids a drawn-out litigation and will facilitate the Congregation’s long-awaited construction.  The monetary portion of the settlement is believed to be a top-ten recovery nationwide under RLUIPA.

The Congregation is thankful to former Attorney General Porrino for his efforts in helping to resolve the dispute on mutually agreeable terms. With the matter now finally behind it, the Congregation looks forward to working cooperatively with the City as it builds its long-anticipated house of worship.

For Weil, this latest achievement comes on the heels of landmark religious liberty settlements obtained by its litigators — also on a pro bono basis — with the Bergen County, New Jersey towns of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River, and Montvale. In 2017, each of those towns attempted unsuccessfully to halt or preclude construction of an Eruv—a near-invisible demarcation that allows observant Jews to carry outside of their homes on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.

The Weil team was led by partner Yehudah Buchweitz, counsel David Yolkut, and Pro Bono Senior Counsel, Robert Sugarman.  It also included associates Alyson Warhit, Kaela Dahan, Michael Nagelberg, Aaron Curtis, and Benjamin Ritholtz.

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    • Well usually if the township is settling, that would mos likely mean that they are fearful of losing the suit under RLUIPA. So its a win for…….RLUIPA. Its in the best interests of everyone.

  1. Wow, this is an amazing win. I cant even imagine the pain the shul went through, all those zoning and planning board meetings, over 10 YEARS. Good for them, they persevered and won.
    A lesson for all of us.
    Good Shabbos

  2. Wile in Jackson New Jersey we continue to stay underground frightened every moment that the feds are going to come busting in and drag us away any second all chained up, men women and children…

    • Jackson approved that because the developers too every step to make sure it complies with Jackson ridiculous and restrictive code. So they had to approve it so as not to make their bias that obvious. Especially now that they are being sued by Agudah and are being investigated by the DOJ for civil rights violations. Oh but dont worry all the townpeople were at the meetings fighting this thing.

  3. @Lupa. Then dont move to Jackson. I lived there many years ago. The town is known to be on the ball with enforcing laws. Even if a home had an above ground swimming pool which was abandoned and in neglected shape, the homeowner would warned to remove/fix it or they would be fined, regardless of who they were.

  4. Dear Clifton Yid,
    I suppose you are ok with the city’s undisputed guilt in causing the 2.5 million loss to a community mosad?
    Facts on the record is that all monies were covered by insurance except for 3% deductible and their annual premium which covered all their claims went from 502,000 to 529,000 which is very much in line with usual insurance increases of 5%. The settlement also required NO gag order and will be used by many others to warn their municipalities of the danger of violating religious rights. Your position is very narrow minded and selfish and you ought to consider helping others before criticizing those who do. So your sarcastic Shkoiach is not appreciated. A public apology is in order and you are welcome to contact me for all details and perhaps you will view those who have harmed and continue to harm religious liberties as the ones who deserve your sarcastic vitriol.
    Duvy Gross

    • Mr. Gross: Why would anyone “contact you for details”? I (a visibly frum woman) once approached you at a Clifton City Council meeting, in order to obtain clarity on this very issue which you were appearing in front of Council about, and you refused to speak to me. Who should apologize? Just because Clifton had no right to drag out the proceedings does not make someone trying to live within a tight budget “narrow-minded and selfish”. In addition, one’s maasim tovim do not outweigh one’s obligation to treat your fellow Yidden with derech eretz, even if they disagree with you.

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