NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Announcing a new policy to protect religious groups from the biased application of municipal zoning and landmark laws, the Justice Department brought its first complaint under the initiative on behalf a New Jersey congregation of Orthodox Jews.

Following an increase in lawsuits over the years related to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the new “Place to Worship” initiative will focus on municipalities that use zoning or landmarking statutes to stymie attempts by religious groups to move or expand their houses of worship.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, prohibits unequal treatment among religious groups as it relates to zoning variances and other building permits.

“Under the laws of this country, government cannot discrimination against people based on their religion — not in law enforcement, not in grant making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Wednesday.

Sessions said the initiative would “help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.”

As part of the new initiative, the Justice Department plans to hold online training for federal prosecutors and a community-outreach event in Newark, N.J.

Newark is also where the Justice Department brought its first lawsuit under the initiative, taking aim at the nearby town Woodcliff Lake for allegedly using zoning laws to frustrate Orthodox Jews trying to build a house of worship in the community.

The 17-page federal complaint contends that the borough has spent more than a decade illegally prohibiting Valley Chabad from purchasing or building a new, larger place of worship.

“The polices and practices of the zoning board and the borough in handling religious land use applications give rise to the likelihood of future unlawful conduct and the imposition of a substantial burden in the handling of future religious land use applications,” the complaint states.

Since 2005 Valley Chabad has looked to expand its roughly 3,200-square-foot building, which it has owned since 1998. The group conducts Hebrew school classes, holiday services, weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs, some of which are too large to be held at the current property, prosecutors say.

When Valley Chabad bought a 2.1-acre property in a residential zone called Galaxy Gardens in 2013, it was immediately opposed by a group of citizens called Concerned Neighbors & Residents of Woodcliff Lake Inc.

Later that year, the borough mayor and council met to discuss the planned relocation. The complaint quotes one council member as having said, “we do not want the character of the town to change.”

Valley Chabad’s purchase was canceled shortly after, and Woodcliff Lake itself wound up buying the Galaxy Gardens property in early 2018 for $1.65 million.

Prosecutors say the congregation met with similar opposition when it looked into expanding its existing property through zoning variances.

The variance application that Valley Chabad in October 2014, with an eye toward building a new 17,728-square-foot house of worship on its land, triggered several hearings and at least four demands for revisions.

Even after the congregation shrank its proposed expansion and removed a proposed deck for a children’s play area,  the zoning board denied the application in 2016. Prosecutors say the town determined that the proposed expansion would create a “detrimental visual impact” on the “residential character of the neighborhood.”

The Valley Chabad property had only one resident neighbor adjacent to it, who did not complain about the proposed construction, and the borough had approved similar variances for other public entities, according to the suit.

Representatives for the borough have not returned requests for comment.

Other New Jersey towns have clashed with Orthodox Jews in recent years over attempts to build new places of worship or set up other religious structures.

Toms River battled Orthodox Jews in 2016 over plans to build a religious meeting place, and Mahwah settled with the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association earlier this year over attempts to build a Jewish eruv near utility poles.

Also in Mahwah this past May, a Native American tribe brought claims over open-air ceremonial grounds.

Meanwhile in Bernards, the township reached a $3.25 million settlement last year after the Justice Department claimed that its treatment of Muslims who wanted to build a mosque amounted to discrimination.

Landmark status related to houses of worship also has become contentious in New Jersey. In April, the state Supreme Court ruled that a town violated the New Jersey Constitution when it awarded historic preservation grants to churches looking to renovate their buildings.

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