Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Airmont slapped with another federal discrimination lawsuit 

Another federal lawsuit filed by a group of Hasidic Jews accuses village officials of systemic discrimination by using their zoning and inspection powers to prevent the residents from practicing their religion.

The lawsuit claims the village is hostile toward Hasidic Jews and tries to prevent residents from praying and holding services in their homes by delaying approvals for residential houses of worship, and by issuing building and zoning violations with daily fines of up to $1,000 and threats of jail.

"The actions of Airmont officials frustrate, discourage, and outright deny the rights of its citizens to freely exercise their faith," said attorney Stephen Dillard, representing the rabbis and residents. "These actions are unlawful and egregious and cannot be allowed to continue."

The lawsuit filed by Dillard's law firm and the Texas-based First Liberty Institute on behalf of the residents and several rabbis marks the second this month against the village.

The discrimination lawsuit is the fourth describing discrimination against Hasidic and Orthodox Jews since the village formed in 1991. The village lost the first two over its zoning practices at a heavy financial cost to taxpayers.

Earlier this month, the Satmar Hasidic Jewish Central UTA school's lawsuit alleged Airmont officials are illegally using zoning laws and building-inspection powers to clamp down on the religious community and deny the congregation the right to operate a school on Cherry Lane.

The school's legal action also claims the Suffern Central school district has denied students with disabilities transportation and educational services.

Village denies discrimination
Mayor Phillip Gigante didn't return a request for comment on the latest lawsuit.

Gigante, Village Attorney Sean Mack and Building Department officials have denied any discrimination, arguing the village enforces its zoning and fire and safety codes equally.

Mack said Tuesday he needed to review the First Liberty lawsuit before commenting.

Residents and rabbis contend in Monday's lawsuit that they are forced to ask village officials for permission to use their homes for worship and are "put through a substantially burdensome process" that "forces residents to spend tens of thousands of dollars and several years to complete a never-ending approval process."

The lawsuit states "Rabbi David Ribiat has paid more than $40,000 in related fees during 2 1/2 years of trying to get approvals that has included multiple delays with no resolution."

Earlier this year, Rabbi Moishe Berger faced the prospect of a year in jail for simply welcoming his neighbors into his home for prayer, the lawsuit says. Berger had opened a shul without village approvals.

Dillard, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, and the First Liberty Institute are representing Ribiat, as well as Congregation of Ridnik, Congregation Meor Yosef, Congregation Khal Boston, Rabbi Abraham Horowitzand Chaim Cahan.

The lawsuit names, among others, Gigante, Board of Trustees members, the village attorney, members of the planning and zoning boards, and Building Department inspectors and code-enforcement officers.

The lawsuit wants Airmont's policies and actions declared in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person's Act, known as RLUIPA, the federal Fair Housing Act, the First , Fifth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution.

In a lawsuit with 11 causes of actions, the residents also are seeking punitive damages and attorneys' fees from village taxpayers.

"Airmont's actions are undeniably a burden on the religious exercise of our clients," said Keisha Russell, associate counsel for First Liberty. "The First Amendment and federal law protect the right of Americans to pray together in their homes free from unreasonable and intrusive government interference like we've seen in Airmont."

Russell also is involved in the Central UTA lawsuit.

Discrimination against Orthodox Jews and civil rights lawsuits have trailed Airmont since residents formed the village in 1991, when local congregations took the nascent village to federal court. The U.S. Attorney General's Office later sued the village over discriminatory zoning.

The village lost the first two cases for using its zoning to block residential houses of worship and then schools with dormitories in the mid-1990s. The fights cost taxpayers several million dollars in legal fees and penalties.

First Liberty and its clients are banking on proving that thevillage's history in these two latest cases continue a practice started 30 years ago.

"Over that time it has taken various forms and has been passed down to a new generation of those in power, but the common denominator has been an unwritten government policy to frustrate, fatigue, discourage, delay, deter and deny the rights of citizens to the free exercise of religion and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment," the lawsuit says.

Hiram Sasser, general counsel of First Liberty, said the time has come to end the discrimination.

"Thirty years of religious bigotry are enough," he said. "The Orthodox Jewish community of Airmont just wants to be left alone to peacefully worship and coexist but Airmont officials are openly hostile."


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