The State of New Jersey has weighed in on the battle in Mahwah Township over the eruv.
On Tuesday, State Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino filed suit in state court against the township, declaring that its efforts to block the construction of an eruv and to exclude out-of-state chassidic Jew from using the township’s parks was bigoted and illegal.
“In addition to being on the wrong side of history, the conduct of Mahwah’s township council is legally wrong, and we intend to hold them accountable for it,” Attorney General Porrino said in a statement announcing the suit. “To think that there are local governments here in New Jersey, in 2017, making laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mindset, is deeply disappointing and shocking to many, but it is exactly what we are alleging in this case. Of course, in this case we allege the target of the small-minded bias is not African-Americans, but Orthodox Jews. Nonetheless, the hateful message is the same.”
The suit seeks damages for civil rights violations, and for the township to return $3.4 million in state funds granted for the creation and upkeep of its parks over the years under the state’s Green Acres Program.
“What’s been happening in Mahwah with respect to the township’s parks ordinance is not in accordance with the original intent of the Green Acres Program,” the Department of Environmental Protection’s commissioner, Bob Martin, said. “As such, it is unacceptable, and it cannot be allowed to stand.”
The Bergen Rockland Eruv Association already has filed federal suits again Mahwah, Upper Saddle River, and Montvale.
Starting in 2015, the organizers of the Rockland eruv began work to extend its eruv, which symbolically demarcates the boundaries within which observant Jews can carry on Shabbat, from Airmont, N.Y., into New Jersey. Upper Saddle River and Mahwah officials initially signed off on the expansion, allowing police to supervise and divert traffic as plastic piping was attached to utility polls to define the area of the eruv. Orange and Rockland, the utility company that owns the poles, approved the piping.
But as the state lawsuit noted, starting this summer Mahwah residents began to object to the presence of chasidic visitors in their township’s parks, and to the eruv that had gone up along part of its proposed path.
Comments in council meetings and online “contained stark anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes concerning the Orthodox Jewish community,” the lawsuit alleges. “Rather than address the problematic nature of the comments, Defendants” — that is, the Township of Mahwah and the Mahwah Township Council — “promptly took steps toward removal of the eruv, and to prevent and discourage Orthodox Jews from using public parks located in the Township.”
The lawsuit quoted comments from the community supporting the ban on out-of-state visitors.
“I was wondering if there are any thoughts and procedures in place to keep the hasidic Jewish people from moving into Mahwah?” one comment said. “They have chased us out of two towns we lived in and now they are buying up houses in Suffern. This is too close for comfort. I see them in our parks and remember that’s how it starts. I heard rumors that they brought a business in Mahwah. Is this true?”
The suit declared that that efforts to block the eruv “has discriminatory intent and constitutes and unlawful and unconstitutional effort to interfere with the free exercise of religion and the ability of individuals with certain religious beliefs to live in the Township.”
It also maintained that blocking the eruv was illegal housing discrimination, since it made the town inhospitable to Orthodox Jews.
The suit filed by the state, like those filed by the Eruv Association, seeks an injunction permitting the eruv. However, it also asks for statutory damages under New Jersey anti-discrimination statutes as well as the court-determined damages the statutes provide for.
The state suit argues that in blocking the eruv, Mahwah is violating the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions, as well as anti-discrimination provisions of state law.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center applauded the state suit. The center’s east coast director, Michael D. Cohen of Englewood, has attended several Mahwah council meetings about the symbolic barrier.
Mr. Cohen praised the attorney general for “recognizing that the unfortunate series of events in Mahwah over the past few months required serious action, and for having the initiative and leadership to combat discrimination in all its forms, including anti-Semitism.
“While we are saddened that the severity of this situation now requires serious action from the attorney general, we commend him for his bold actions.”
The lawsuit reopened the conflict between Mahwah’s mayor, William Laforet, and its council president, Robert Hermansen. Mr. Laforet had sought to accommodate the eruv and had opposed the township ordinances cited by the state lawsuit. In response, Mr. Hermansen led the council in censuring Mr. Laforet.
Now, Mr. Laforet is feeling vindicated.
“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 statement to NJ.com. “He personally led his council mates to this action by the state’s highest law enforcement official, and is most accountable…. His race-baiting bantering has now bitten him back. His disgraceful behavior is now worsened by the severe potential financial penalties facing the township’s taxpayer.”
According to the state lawsuit, “Council President Hermansen directed an inquiry to the Police Chief while in a meeting of the Council’s Ordinance Committee asking whether it was true that the Police Chief had recently given a tour of police headquarters to a group of chasidic children.”
Mr. Hermansen told NJ.com that he thought the attorney general’s suit was politically motivated. Mr. Hermansen is a former Republican county freeholder.
“I believe this has everything to do with trying to get Phil Murphy and [Laforet’s] council candidates elected,” he told NJ.com. “Am I shocked that the mayor of Mahwah is backing Phil Murphy after having received a $2,600 check from him? Not really.”
Attorney General Porrino was appointed by Governor Chris Christie, a Republican.
Next month, Mahwah voters will have a chance to weigh in on their township’s response to the lawsuits. Two council members, both serving temporary terms, will be up for election. Mr. Hermansen and Mahwah Strong, a group that has opposed the eruv, support the incumbents.
The incumbents face challenges from two candidates, Vicky Galow and Susan Steinberg, who are campaigning under the banner of “Make Mahwah Stronger.”
“We are deeply saddened that Mahwah’s current Council has put our community in this precarious position,” read a post on Make Mahwah Stronger’s Facebook page after the state lawsuit was announced.