JACKSON — State authorities say municipal officials enacted laws to appease bigots who wanted to keep Orthodox Jewish families from moving into the township.

A religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General's Office is the latest legal fight alleging discriminatory behavior by local officials in this municipality. Last year, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Jackson violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and the Fair Housing Act by banning yeshivas and dormitories.

The township's efforts to adapt its land-use laws, as well as the pushback it has received from developers and the Orthodox Jewish community, has been making headlines for years.

Jackson borders Lakewood, one of New Jersey's largest municipalities and where half of its 100,000 residents are Orthodox Jews. Some Jackson residents feared that their municipality was “becoming a subdivision of Lakewood," state officials said.

Growing Orthodox Jewish communities have led to clashes elsewhere in New Jersey. The state in 2017 also sued Mahwah, where officials tried to ban non-residents from public parks because many Orthodox Jewish families were using them.

Mahwah, like Jackson, also targeted eruvim, which are boundaries created with plastic strips that Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods mount on public utility poles with the permission of the utility companies. Many municipalities in the state have eruvim, which often go unnoticed by other residents. The state said both municipalities unfairly tried to block them.

In response to the lawsuit on Tuesday, Township Administrator Terence Wall said the municipality was "surprised" to learn of the litigation after cooperating with investigators, adding that Jackson's 60,000 residents includes "members of nearly every faith."

"The Township went out of it's way to provide whatever they asked for and we have not heard from them since. Instead we learn that they simply filed suit and issued a press release," Wall said in a written statement that did not respond to specific allegations leveled by the state.

"Before one level of government decides to sue another, we would think it would be in the best interests of the taxpayers for the parties to at least sit down and attempt to resolve any issues or review any facts which may be in dispute. For whatever reason the state chose not to do so here. Now, both the state and local taxpayers will be forced to pay the costs of litigation," he said.

State prosecutors said Jackson officials were motivated by hate, which was openly evident on social media, including on Rise Up Ocean County, which Facebook banned last year after complaints from state officials. The page now exists as a standalone website.

In 2015, for example, social media conversations on local Facebook pages included references to Orthodox Jewish families as “filthy f’ing cockroaches" and a suggestion that "we need to get rid of them like Hitler did.”

Other comments argued that the families “refuse to assimilate” and that they will “destroy our neighborhoods.”

The state's lawsuit pointed to a comment by a Jackson Zoning Board member who urged action against “the tsunami of orthodoxy that is mounting at the border.”

The Division on Civil Rights lawsuit targets the Township Council, Zoning Board, Planning Board and Mayor Michael Reina, who did not return New Jersey 101.5's request for comment on Tuesday morning.

“We’ve filed this lawsuit because bias and hate have no home in New Jersey, and we will not allow some vocal residents’ intolerance to drive local government decisions,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Like all public servants, municipal officials have a duty to uphold the law, not weaponize it against specific groups because of what they believe or how they worship. Today’s lawsuit should send that message to anyone in New Jersey who needs to hear it.”

The lawsuit says Jackson officials, at the direction of Reina, "engaged in targeted and discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews suspected of hosting communal prayer gatherings," for which the municipality requires permits. The lawsuit says that Reina, by his own admission, would not have used similar government resources to investigate churches.

The lawsuit faults the township for passing laws against front-lawn sukkahs, temporary gazebo-like structures sometimes made with branches and sheets that are used to mark a weeklong Jewish holiday in the fall.

The lawsuit, following on the federal government's litigation, says the township's 2017 zoning laws that made it impossible to build religious schools and dormitories violated religious protection laws.

Sergio Bichao is the digital managing editor of New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-775-9793 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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