How zoning can be a subtle kind of bigotry

The federal government recently announced a 37 percent surge in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States. The most horrific incident, of course, was the horrifying massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. But not all anti-Semitic expression takes such violent forms — it is usually subtler, as is happening in a small community just north of New York City.

Indeed, though it doesn’t involve violence, rarely have advocates of religious liberty seen such blatant examples of pervasive and systematic religious hostility than from the government of the village of Airmont. And that is why my firm has been filing lawsuits to protect the Jewish community there, including one we just filed this week.

Airmont was born in bigotry. In the mid-1980s, an organization called the Airmont Civic Association, Inc., pushed for Airmont’s incorporation, which came in 1991. Almost immediately, the federal government filed suit against the new town, alleging it had been formed for the purpose of excluding Jewish citizens through zoning restrictions on their places of worship.

In 1987, legal testimony revealed that ACA’s original president, James Filenbaum, had openly stated that “the reason [for] forming this village is to keep people like you out of this neighborhood.” He was directing his comments to Jews.

In 2005, the United States and private plaintiffs again filed a federal lawsuit against Airmont. This time the village’s government had banned schools with residential facilities, not so subtly hoping to keep out yeshivas.

The private plaintiff eventually settled with Airmont, which resulted in a consent decree that prevented village officials from using zoning laws to discriminate against the Orthodox Jewish community. But as soon as that consent decree expired, the village went back to its old, bigoted playbook.

Over the past several months, attorneys from my law firm who have been investigating claims of discrimination by Airmont’s Orthodox Jewish residents confirmed that, indeed, village officials are up to their intolerant tricks again. In fact, their zoning ordinances, approval process and associated fines are so egregious, they will likely take multiple lawsuits to fully sort through.

That includes the two we recently filed against Airmont. One, filed this week, seeks to recover the thousands rabbis have spent trying to get permission to pray with others in their own home, along with punitive damages to prevent this from happening again. The other, filed late last month, seeks $25 million in damages from the village for the discriminatory impact its zoning scheme has had on the local school.

In response, government officials in Airmont continue to obfuscate, attempting to justify their discrimination with hollow platitudes, such as “This is not about religion.”

But of course it is. The disparity in enforcement of Airmont’s policies and its zoning code’s focus on places of worship could mean nothing else.

Such systematic bigotry by any American government official is anathema to the promise of the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the Constitution. Discrimination against those peacefully living according to their faith is always wrong. But when such hostility is perpetrated by those trusted with government authority, it is especially contemptible.

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For almost three decades, through multiple presidential administrations and attorneys general, entrenched government officials in Airmont have imposed excessive fees and even criminal punishment for worship. Those actions have driven Orthodox Jewish residents to fearfully practice their faith in hiding.

One First Liberty client forced to worship underground because he cannot afford to continue Airmont’s outlandishly expensive approval process said, “The Orthodox Jewish residents of Airmont can only shudder to think about our future here if this doesn’t stop.”

Airmont officials prevented another First Liberty client, Central UTA, from improving its own property, limiting the number of students that may occupy its more than 21-acre site to fewer than 200. That’s less than 10 per acre. And never mind that a previous school and day camp had been using the same property but were never limited to such a low enrollment number.

It doesn’t end there. Even though Orthodox Judaism compels its adherents to honor the Sabbath in their own neighborhoods, local law requires that anyone who wants to worship with others in their own home must first receive approval from the village.

Applicants seeking to use their homes for worship are put through a process so arduous and expensive that it is an undeniable burden on religious exercise — and certainly not free in any sense of the term. Our clients have been forced to spend tens of thousands over at least two years, and still they cannot worship in their own homes.

One rabbi even faced the prospect of a year in jail for simply welcoming his neighbors into his home for prayer.

Government-sponsored religious discrimination is illegal. And government officials violate the law when they devise laws to throw roadblocks in the way of citizens who simply wish to peacefully exercise their religious rights.

Maybe after yet another trip before a federal judge Airmont officials will finally cease this sinister practice, once and for all.

Hiram Sasser is General Counsel to First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom. Read more at

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