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Airmont denies federal prosecutors' claims of discriminating against Jews in federal suit


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AIRMONT — Village officials Thursday denied a federal complaint accusing the local government of discriminating against Hasidic and Orthodox Jews through zoning laws and enforcement since breaking from Ramapo and incorporating in 1991.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan filed the civil complaint Wednesday in federal court, claiming Airmont has violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA.  

The 19-page federal complaint's opening paragraph states: "From its inception as an independent municipality three decades ago, the village of Airmont has been tainted by discriminatory animus against Orthodox Jews."

Airmont has lost two previous federal civil rights actions, saw its zoning code frozen, and paid more than a million dollars in fines.

But federal prosecutors contend in their legal action filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court that despite harsh reprimands and penalties, the village government continues to single out ultra-religious Jews with illegal actions.  

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Acting Southern District U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a release Airmont has again violated the rights of Orthodox Jews. U.S. Attorney General William Barr also signed the complaint.

The village, Strauss said, has imposed land use and zoning provisions that restrict the ability of Orthodox Jewish residents to worship in private homes, work on their property, and prevent the operation of a private religious school. 

“As a jury found over two decades ago, the Village of Airmont was born out of a spirit of animus against a religious minority," Strauss said.  "Sadly, rather than working to overcome that shameful legacy, Airmont has flagrantly ignored the terms of a court judgment and implemented land-use practices that by design and operation are again meant to infringe unlawfully on the rights of a minority religious community."

A statement released by Village Attorney Amy Mele contends Airmont respects and supports the right of every resident to practice their faith.

 "This lawsuit by the United States Government misinterprets the Village Code and rehashes false allegations from prior lawsuits," the statement said. "Many of these claims have already been dismissed in court or settled amicably. The Village denies all allegations of discriminatory conduct and looks forward to defending its Code in this suit."

Village officials will continue to work with the Department of Justice to address any legitimate concerns, the statement said.

"Our goal has always been and remains to make sure that our residents have places to assemble and pray that are safe and comply with all state and local building and fire codes," the statement said.

Over the years, Airmont officials and attorneys, dating to the tenure of Mayor Philip Gigante, have denied the allegations of discrimination or declined comment on pending litigation. They've contended enforcement of zoning laws and fire and safety codes have been even-handed.

On Wednesday, Gigante called zoning changes under his administration "100% not discriminatory."

In July, when the federal government considered legal action, Brian Sokoloff, one of the village's private attorneys, said Airmont does not "comment on pending or threatening litigation." He added, "Any discussions with the federal government can’t be through the media." 

The new complaint follows two separate civil rights lawsuits filed in late 2018 against the village by a coalition of Orthodox Jewish congregations led by Congregation Ridnik, and Central UTA of Monsey, which is looking to expand its school on Cherry Lane. The legal actions are pending in federal court, though the village and Central UTA are involved in settlement talks..

Past action drew interest

Drawn by Airmont's history and the Ridnik legal action, federal prosecutors filed a letter with the U.S. District Court in October 2019 stating they were reviewing the village's zoning code for discrimination against Hasidic and Orthodox Jews and the village's adherence to two previous settlements.

In July, the prosecutors warned Airmont to stop discriminating or face legal action — which came Wednesday. 

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The legal action marked the third time that the U.S. Department of Justice has sued Airmont since its 1991 incorporation for discriminatory treatment of Orthodox Jewish residents under RLUIPA and the federal Fair Housing Act. 

The first two lawsuits resulted in the entry of court judgments against the village — a judgment following a jury trial in 1996 and judgment pursuant to a court-entered consent decree in 2011.

First Liberty Institute, a nationwide religious rights organization based in Texas, represents the religious organizations suing the village.

“It’s time for Village of Airmont officials to reverse their unlawful decisions that keep our clients from peacefully practicing their faith in their homes,” attorney Keisha Russell said Wednesday in a statement. “With the assistance of the Department of Justice, we hope to put an end to Airmont’s practice of religious discrimination once and for all.”.

What's in the complaint?

The latest federal action focuses on Airmont updating its zoning code in 2018 after a nearly two-year process. Hasidic Jewish residents complained at meetings they found the moratoriums restricted their plans to expand their homes and opposed many of the new rules.

The complaint notes the federal oversight of the village decreed in the second discrimination settlement ended in 2015.

The complaint states the village made establishing houses of worship more difficult in 2007 and ended home worship shuls without government approvals to strict guidelines in the 2018 master plan update.

The government orchestrated delays to prevent home worship, the complaint states, claiming the hostility toward Hasidic and Orthodox Jews were shown during public meetings supporting a building moratorium and comprehensive plan update.

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Yehuda Zorger, a village homeowner, said the discrimination has been continuous by the government and village employees for years. He said the Department of Justice saw through the tactics.

"This will hopefully be the end of a long painful journey for the Jewish community in Airmont," Zorger said. "The Jewish community in Airmont is thankful for this lawsuit by the justice department. And hopefully, after the next election in Airmont, Preserve Airmont will be a thing of the past."

Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at slieberm@lohud.com. Twitter: @lohudlegalRead more articles and bio. Our local coverage is only possible with support from our readers.