Justice Department Settles Claims Against Toms River, New Jersey Over Zoning Code That Restricts Houses of Worship
(STL.News) The Justice Department today announced an agreement with the Township of Toms River, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by severely restricting where houses of worship can locate within its jurisdiction.
The proposed consent decree, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court of the District of New Jersey and must still be approved by the court, would resolve a lawsuit the United States also filed today alleging that the Township’s zoning code places unreasonable limits on where religious assemblies and institutions may locate, substantially burdens religious exercise and treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institution.
“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths in their right to exercise their religion,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice has long enforced RLUIPA against zoning regulations that unreasonably burden religious exercise by imposing unwarranted restrictions and conditions on the location of houses of worship.”
“Federal law protects religious communities against unequal treatment and unwarranted burdens,” said Rachael A. Honig, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “Zoning regulations that impose unreasonable restrictions or prevent religious faiths from having a place to worship violate RLUIPA. Through the resolution entered today, this office takes another step to put an end to unlawful zoning practices and vindicate the civil rights of minority religious communities in the District of New Jersey.”
The complaint alleges that since 2009, Toms River has enacted a series of revisions to its zoning code—including a ten-acre parcel minimum requirement—which greatly reduced both the number of zoning districts in which houses of worship can locate and the number of sites available for houses of worship. These restrictions have had a particular impact on the Township’s Orthodox Jewish population, who, because of their faith and religious traditions, tend to worship at small houses of worship which they walk to and from on the Sabbath and holidays. The complaint also alleges that the Township’s zoning ordinance treats houses of worship and other religious assemblies and institutions on less favorable terms than nonreligious assemblies and institutions.
As part of the consent decree, the Township will revise its zoning code to: reduce the minimum acreage required for a house of worship in many zoning districts from ten acres to two acres; allow houses of worship as-of-right in certain zoning districts; allow smaller houses of worship to be located on minor collector roads; and treat houses of worship on comparable terms to nonreligious places of assembly. The consent decree also requires the Township to train its officials and employees on RLUIPA’s requirements, establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA complaints and other injunctive relief.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations . In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land.