NJ says town passed anti-Jewish laws and wants them to refund $3.4M in aid
MAHWAH — State officials say this Bergen County township is discriminating against Orthodox Jews — an allegation that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost state aid.
The township already is being sued by a local Jewish group after the Township Council this summer banned the use of utility poles to construct a symbolic eruv in the township.
The eruv allows Orthodox Jews to perform tasks outside their homes during the Sabbath or holidays. The religious boundary is created by wires attached to utility poles. In Mahwah, white plastic piping attached to the poles reveals where the eruv boundaries are.
A local Jewish organization obtained permission from Orange & Rockland Utilities to expand the eruv from Monsey, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population, across the New York border into Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale.
But after complaints from local residents, the Township Council amended its ordinances to ban not only signs from utility poles, but any markings, making the eruv illegal.
All three communities have been sued in federal court by the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association, which cites religious discrimination.
In a separate lawsuit announced Tuesday against just Mahwah, the state Attorney General’s Office compared Mahwah’s officials to the “1950s-era ‘white flight’ suburbanites who sought to keep African-Americans from moving into their neighborhoods.”
“The Township Council in Mahwah heard the angry, fear-driven voices of bigotry and acted to appease those voices,” Attorney General Christopher Porrino said.
A spokesman for Porrino's office declined to say whether the state also would sue Upper Saddle River and Montvale, but Porrino's Tuesday announcement put other towns on notice.
"Our message to local officials in other towns who may be plotting to engage in similar attempts to illegally exclude, is the same: We will hold you accountable as well.”
The state's case appeared to be bolstered by the township's own mayor, who on Tuesday accused the Township Council president of "race-baiting bantering."
In some cases, municipalities fought costly losing battles against the eruv — fights that religious leaders argued were fueled by animosity toward Orthodox Jews and fears that an influx in their population would drive down quality of life and property values.
The state lawsuit against Mahwah is different because the state Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to reclaim more than $3.4 million in Green Acres funds that Mahwah used for its parks.
In addition to the utility pole ordinance, the council also banned non-New Jersey residents from township parks — a law that the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office warned police not to enforce because of its potential for illegally profiling people in the parks.
The state says police received calls from residents who complained that people who looked like Orthodox Jews were seen in the parks, even though it did not appear that they were doing anything wrong.
The state’s lawsuit says the utility pole ordinance is akin to housing discrimination because it “would interfere with the ability of observant Orthodox Jews to live in Mahwah, thereby denying them housing on the basis of religion.”
The state's lawsuit makes no mention of recent action by the Mahwah council, which introduced a “no-knock” ordinance aimed at pushy real estate solicitors. In a meeting attended by more than 200 people in September, one speaker said: “Let’s not turn Mahwah into Lakewood.”
Lakewood has a significant concentration of Orthodox Jewish residents and government leaders. Neighboring municipalities in Ocean County have enacted similar ordinances after complaints about residents being asked to sell their homes.
The Mahwah lawsuit points to comments made by people at public meetings and online forums as proof of the bigotry that colored the decision-making. It also cites an email from Council President Robert Hermansen to a non-Orthodox Jewish resident, who was worried that her New York mother would not be able to use the parks, telling her that she "had nothing to worry about" and that the law "was not intended to address her situation."
In response to the litigation, the mayor held up Hermansen for scorn.
"It has been a lonely and painful struggle for me and my family these past several months, having to deal with a reckless and oblivious council president, Rob Hermansen," Laforet said in a written statement.
"His disgraceful behavior is now worsened by the severe potential financial penalties facing the township's taxpayer. But, I am sorrowed by the loss of reputation for Mahwah which is as diverse, tolerant and welcoming a community that you can find in NJ."
Hermansen said the prosecutor's office and the attorney general's office both rejected requests to help town officials create laws that would be neutral and could be enforced.
"It's astonishing to know that we told them what we were looking to do and they rebuked us, and we're now being sued over this," he said.
Hermansen said the ordinance was written by the township attorney, not the council, and under those circumstances "we deem it to be good law when we receive it."
He also disputed Laforet's remarks about him and how the measures were handled, saying "the mayor has an issue with telling the truth." He also said he was "getting tired of the mayor slandering me and my family. His attacks need to stop."
Hermansen, who has condemned anti-Semitic comments people have made about the Jewish community in some online postings, has said the ban was not created to be discriminatory. He noted that Mahwah residents began complaining this year about vehicles from New York occupying parking lots at Winters Pond, a recreational area across from the town's train station.
The ordinance, he has said, was intended to curb the number of people from outside Mahwah using parks, not to target Jews.
"We had incidents where Mahwah families could not use the parks," he said last month, so the council wanted to find a way to "put Mahwah residents first."
A spokesman for Mahwah Strong, the group of residents that championed the anti-eruv ordinance, declined to comment as a result of pending litigation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Also on New Jersey 101.5: