Reasonable Accommodation

Much like for religious beliefs, special arrangements may need to be made to preserve the rights of those with handicaps. The protections provided by the Fair Housing Act require that a disabled person be allowed to make physical modifications to their home and exceptions to housing related policies as needed to “afford such person full enjoyment of the premises”:

(3) For purposes of this subsection, discrimination includes–

(A) a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises, except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification, reasonable wear and tear excepted.

(B) a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling;

A recent letter (shown below) sent by an attorney retained by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz, a handicapped homeowner in the Westlake Golf & Country Club of Jackson, details the rabbi’s travails in trying to get the homeowners association to afford him full enjoyment of his house. If allowed access to an existing gate in a common area, it would enable him to attend religious services without pushing his wheelchair on a busy road. His requests to build a screened porch which could be used for religious observance were denied, despite other houses having a similar porch. And recently, the association bylaws were amended in a manner that would seem to prevent him from worshipping with a group at in his home:

1.38 (New) “Residential purposes” shall mean used solely as a place to live. Holding or conducting regular meetings, presentations, assemblies or other gatherings, to which members of the public are invited, shall not constitute a residential purpose and are prohibited. For purposes of this restriction “members of the public” shall mean individuals other than personal friends and members of a resident’s family.

Now, we’re sure there are perfectly perfunctory reasons for all this: the gate was intended for emergency vehicles only, screened porches are only allowed on some models of homes in Westlake but not others, and the association board had a sudden but unrelated need to clarify the word “residential” in their bylaws.

But to what end does the homeowners association continue to deny what seem like otherwise reasonable accommodations to a disabled resident?

Two Sides to Every Story

A social media controversy over a speed bus was flipped on its head by new video evidence.

villanovabus
Original Facebook post

A recent video on Facebook sought to bring attention to a speeding bus on Villanova Drive and shows the vehicle swerving in the direction of the camera while driving past. The poster alleged that the driver had intentionally changed course towards him as a means of intimidation. A followup showed the driver receiving a ticket the next day for speeding.

This seemed like the end of the story, until the Lakewood Scoop shed new light on the incident with a post containing dash-cam videos from the bus company. This new video shows that in addition to the original poster standing behind a tree on the side of the street, there is a second person, unseen in the original video, blocking part of the street. The bus was actually forced towards the curb (and the camera) to move away from this person in the street. It almost seems like a set-up designed to capture the original video.

Below are two police reports associated with this incident:

The police were called to Villanova Drive around 3:00 PM on 2/15, the day after the first video, where a number of residents claimed that a speed bus had swerved towards them, a claim which would seem to be contradicted by the dash-cam video. The officer then stayed in the area, giving a citation to the driver when he passed later.

New Lawsuit Filed Against Jackson Township

Religious discrimination and harassment alleged by new suit.

As reported this morning by the Asbury Park Press, a new religious discrimination lawsuit has been filed in federal court against Jackson Township, this time by a private homeowner. The suit alleges that Council President Robert Nixon and various unidentified township employees worked together under the guise of zoning enforcement to stalk and harass the occupants of a home in Jackson for doing nothing more than hosting prayer services, in violation of the US Constitution, the NJ Constitution and RLUIPA. This seems to be entirely distinct from the lawsuit filed by Agudath Israel last year over school, dormitory and eruv bans.

The complaint filed in court is available below:

Update: DOJ Investigation in Jackson

The US Department of Justice has launched its own investigation into Jackson’s municipal laws.

In addition to a subpoena from the NJ Attorney General, Jackson officials have received a similar request for documents from the US Department of Justice:

The DOJ’s request focuses more on the recent school and dormitory ordinances and asks for 10 years worth of zoning and planning documents. Presumably this is to determine if the new bans are part of a coherent long-term development plan or created to target land use by a specific religion or group, thus falling afoul of RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act.

There is a bit of irony here: while these ordinances were being conceived, Jackson actually had their attorneys send their own request to the NJ Attorney General and the US Department of Justice for investigations into housing practices:

They allege blockbusting by the Orthodox Jewish community, a charge which centers in general around real-estate professionals spreading fear in order to lower housing prices. Jackson’s proof? In addition to citing rumor, they give links to two videos of speeches, one where individual Orthodox Jews are encouraged to move to new neighborhoods, and the other in Yiddish (we bet the federal government sent it straight to their language specialists). Hardly compelling evidence that there is a professional effort to scare people from their houses.

We do however feel that there are some peddling panic in Jackson and scaring people into selling. Not the Orthodox Jews moving in, but so-called “strong” and “watchdog” community groups that harp on their every move and constantly invoke hyperbolic statements about the inevitable destruction of Jackson Township.

In response to the Township’s letter, the NJ Attorney General declined to investigate while the DOJ doesn’t seem to have ever responded. In the end though, both turned their sights to discriminatory behavior by Jackson officials themselves.

Jackson Under Investigation

Subpoena received by Jackson Township from NJ Attorney General.

As mentioned in the Township Council meeting last week, Jackson Township is now under investigation by the NJ Attorney General and the US Department of Justice for passing certain laws targeting Orthodox Jews. Later in the meeting, permission was granted for the construction of an eruv in Jackson using attachments to utility poles as part of a preliminary settlement in a lawsuit brought by Agudath Israel against Jackson.

Below is the subpoena sent to the Township by the Attorney General’s office, requesting documents and communications related to Ordinance 03-17 and Ordinance 04-17, which prohibited schools and dormitories in most zones in the town, and Ordinance 20-17, which removed the mechanism for exceptions to be granted in an old and “seldom enforced” right-of-way ordinance thereby effectively blocking previous requests for an eruv.

Update: US Department of Justice investigation launched as well

It’s Okay Sir, I’m From the Government

In the words of Jackson Code Enforcement

government_man
Come from the government, the government has sent me.

So what happens when Code Enforcement gets tired of spying?

A helpful reader has provided audio of a conversation where they were confronted at their front door by two Code Enforcement Officers over praying in their house, after being watched by them for weeks. Below are excerpts from this audio. It is worth noting that the two officers are professional throughout and the conversation is cordial, however we find the content disturbing.

Code Enforcement Head Ken Pieslak introduces himself, and tells the resident that prayer (shudder) has been reported in his house. Praying is somehow against the law, though Ken isn’t sure exactly which one; it has something to do with acreage and setback. From his description it’s almost certain he is referring to Jackson zoning code § 244-115, which sets the conditions for a building that is primarily an institutional church, including a 2 acre lot and 200 foot setbacks. Needless to say, this person’s house is primarily a private residence and thus not subject to these requirements.

Ken Pieslak:  I’m Ken Pieslak, department of compliance supervisor.

Are you the owner? Okay.

We’re getting, we’ve received some complaints last week that on Friday, you’re conducting services in the house. And we don’t want to bother, we didn’t want to come Friday at sundown and bother you so we wanted to get a hold of you ahead of time, cause you may not be aware that we have a code that doesn’t allow it. It only allows it in certain zones and you need X amount of property and, be, 200 foot setbacks and so forth. And we can get you a copy of the code, I don’t have it on me right now, but we just wanted to make you aware that it isn’t allowed.

I mean, if you have something scheduled for tonight, we understand, we don’t wanna, it’s last minute, we’re okay with that. But anything in the future beyond that, you know, we’re going to have to give a notice of violation followed up by a summons and that sort of…

What was the actual complaint? Was it noise or parking violations that spurred this concerned citizen to action? Code Enforcement Officer Connie Sidor fills in the details: an anonymous tipster helpfully took a video of people praying in the house and reported it.

Connie Sidor: The complaint came in, and we have a video of, they say, 30 people going into the garage and holding some kind of service or something. So, the ordinance says you can’t hold, on a continuous basis, any type of church or religious service.

Forget about any legal advice (or lack thereof) the officers may have been operating with, doesn’t this fail a basic smell test? Does it really bear saying that people are allowed to worship in groups in the privacy of their homes? Substitute in another type of gathering and imagine the absurdity: getting a notice of violation for hosting a weekly Boy Scout troop meeting or a summons because you have invited friends over on successive Sundays to watch the Giants lose. Imagine the township showing up because someone sent them videos of you having dinner parties (“We have decided that you are a restaurant” says Ken). What country is this anyways that people record their neighbors praying and run off to report them?

Let’s be reasonable here, one cannot do whatever they want in the name of religion. In Sexton v. Bates for example, the construction of a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) was disallowed in a residential area in NJ. But our state constitution ensures that the right to gather and pray cannot be abridged by municipal zoning.

Spying Update: Legal Follies

Where were Jackson’s legal advisors?

banksy

As reported in a previous article, Jackson officials and staff have been spying on homes suspected of harboring prayer services, staking out the same houses on a regular basis and counting the number of people entering and leaving with “bibles”. In some cases, the same houses were watched over a period of multiple months.

One might wonder why Township Attorney Jean Cipriani didn’t alert anyone to the pointlessness of this activity; after all, while courts have determined that towns can issue violations of noise or other nuisance ordinances if applicable, prayer service in one’s home cannot be regulated in NJ using zoning regardless of how many people or books are involved. The opinion in Farhi v. Deal Borough Commisioners states:

The court therefore holds that the guaranty of freedom of worship as set forth by our State Constitution forecloses any use by a municipal authority of its zoning power to prohibit the free exercise of religious activity in the privacy of one’s home.

Not only have we not found a warning to this effect, but it seems that Cipriani had drafted an ordinance to forbid such prayer gatherings. Unfortunately, we will probably never know how such an ordinance would attempt to circumvent the US Constitution, NJ Constitution and prior case law, as the text of this ordinance is likely considered privileged and deliberative.

However, even if Cipriani did tell them, Jackson doesn’t exactly have a perfect record of following her advice. Take the following warning about how passing a resolution about neighborhood watch groups could lead to penalties in court:

The resolution was then adopted four days later by the council.

Continued here: It’s Okay Sir, I’m From the Government