WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The federal government has again sued the Rockland County village of Airmont, alleging that its zoning code violates the religious freedom of Hasidic Jews.
The lawsuit says that by prohibiting boarding schools, the village prevents members of a Hasidic congregation from engaging in "the religious educational experience that their faith mandates."
Kevin Plunkett, a White Plains attorney representing the village, said, "Land-use decisions should be left to local municipalities and not the federal government. At first blush it appears the Department of Justice is seeking to take away that power from the Village of Airmont."
According to the complaint, filed on June 10 in White Plains, "It is the congregation's religious practice and belief that when Hasidic boys reach the age of approximately 15 years, they are sent to live and study at religious boarding schools ... in order to minimize outside influences and to intensify the religious learning experience."
In 1991, the government alleged in a lawsuit that Airmont, which was incorporated a few months earlier in five square miles on the border of New Jersey, was founded to exclude Orthodox Jews and did so by prohibiting prayer services in homes. Airmont was forced to amend its zoning code to allow such services.
Similarly, the new lawsuit alleges that Airmont imposed the ban on boarding schools "to prevent Hasidic boarding schools from operating in Airmont."
U.S. Attorney David Kelley said on June 13 that the government "is committed to ensuring that the Village of Airmont discontinues its practice of using its zoning regulations to discriminate against Orthodox Jews. The enactment of zoning regulations that burden religious exercise and discriminate on the basis of religion cannot be tolerated."
Airmont's zoning permits schools for religious instruction, "provided that there shall be no residential uses."
The new lawsuit indicates the government was not satisfied with a settlement approved earlier this year of a federal lawsuit filed by the Hasidic group, Congregation Mischknois Lavier Jakov, against the village. The settlement did not require the village to end its blanket ban on religious boarding schools and has not prevented others from challenging the congregation's plans for its yeshiva, the government said.
The complaint noted that other buildings "that accommodate group residential needs," ranging from hospitals to motels to sleep-away camps, are permitted in Airmont. It also said that the congregation's environmental study concluded that there would be no adverse impact from erecting a boarding school on the 19-acre lot it bought in 2001.
The government is requesting that the ban on boarding schools be declared a violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act; that the zoning code be amended; and that the village be assessed an unspecified financial penalty.