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.
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.
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.
Happy Thanksgiving dear reader. One thing we here at Jackson Leaks are thankful for is the freedom of association provided by the United States Constitution and free exercise of religion required therein as well as by the NJ State Constitution. As determined by prior court cases, the right to congregate and worship in one’s home may not, in itself, be limited by the government in NJ.
Why should the government monitor what lawful activities one is doing in the privacy of their home and with whom they are doing them? After all, using your home for other activities is absolutely commonplace, whether it be a home business, regular club, play group, or prayer service. We should be careful about declaring certain activities that are otherwise legal to be subversive when done in one’s home.
So then by what right are Jackson officials giving orders for houses to be put under surveillance without some serious allegation of illegal behavior,
sending spies in unmarked cars to monitor houses on a regular basis,
who keep detailed notes on the otherwise benign activities at private properties.
Why are private citizens being enlisted to inform on and photograph each others daily routines,
with high-up Jackson officials then following up on surveillance in person?
The only thing they seem to find problematic is that this is a waste of “valuable time and money”. While true, they are missing the larger issue: they are government backed predators hunting Jews. In 2017. For no reason other than they gather together with friends and family.
Today they are monitoring Jews and private groups. Tomorrow, what will they be adding to their list?