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New Jersey Town Allows Zoning for Sabbath-keepers

New Jersey Town Allows Zoning for Sabbath-keepers

A township along the New Jersey shore has changed its zoning rules in favor of houses of worship, ending a 12-year dispute—as well as a federal lawsuit.

According to the area’s newspaper, Asbury Park Press, the changes involve decreasing the minimum amount of land required to build a place of worship, from ten acres to two, and also increasing the kinds of areas in which places of worship can be located, such as “in the more rural areas of town” and on “minor collectors, [roads] which usually connect neighborhood streets to larger roadways or highways.”

Those specifics might sound like regulatory mumbo jumbo, but for Orthodox Jews in Toms River, New Jersey, the changes finally allow them the opportunity to corporately worship within the confines of their faith. According to a U.S. Department of Justice announcement, “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.”

For Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath is a holy day in which they are neither to operate an automobile nor to travel past a certain distance. Thus, the only real solution to keeping those ordinances is to instead walk to their neighborhood synagogue in order to worship. If the closest synagogue is not within a reasonable walking distance, that could pose quite a problem.

In fact, it is just the sort of problem that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was designed to address. As the Department of Justice announcement explained, “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.” Justice officials maintained that Toms River violated RLUIPA by enforcing its zoning restrictions.


Religious Bias Cited

Part of the issue centers on just how cooperative and accommodating a community wants to be. Residents of Toms River, U.S. District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson noted, had sent out petitions and social media posts tinged with anti-Semitism, including a statement from the town’s then-mayor (though he refuted the claim). 

The town seemed to further discriminate when its council “changed zoning in areas of town with larger lot sizes to block the construction of houses of worship in those spots, when they previously had been allowed”; the area included “almost all of North Dover, where a growing number of Orthodox Jewish families have been buying homes in recent years.”

In the council’s crosshairs was the small Chabad Jewish Center, run by Rabbi Moshe Gourarie out of his home and serving the 15 to 20 Orthodox Jews in the area.

When the town required the rabbi “to obtain a use variance to continue operating the Chabad Jewish Center at his house in a residential zone,” he “filed a federal civil rights lawsuit” in March of 2016. In 2018, a federal judge ruled against Toms River, and the town was ordered to pay $122,500 in damages to Gourarie.

In 2011, another case involving a Sabbath-keeping church also went before a federal judge, similarly over a RLUIPA-based dispute. Reaching Hearts International, a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Laurel, Maryland, had been attempting “for nearly a decade … to get its application for sewer service on its property approved.”

The case’s federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Titus, noted the “systematic opposition to the church” by two successive members of the county council who represented the district where the church wanted to build. Again, religious discrimination was suspected. “The members of the Prince George’s County Council need to step back and ponder what structure and tradition have brought them in this case, and what it may produce for them in the future,” Titus warned.


The Purpose of the Sabbath

While the county, as in the Toms River case, also paid a hefty settlement to the church, this is where the similarities between the two cases end. The actual reason for religious discrimination against Reaching Hearts International was not disclosed. What is more curious, Prince George’s County is home to several large churches, even so-called “megachurches.”

And despite Orthodox Jews and Seventh-day Adventists both being Sabbath-keepers, how each faith observes the Sabbath differs widely. Both take their Sabbath observance from Scripture—for the Jews called the Torah and for Seventh-day Adventists the Bible—but they don’t view the Sabbath in the same way.

So, what does the Bible say about the seventh day of the week? It was made holy by God at Creation (Genesis 2:3); it is the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8–11). But is the Sabbath a day heavily laden with restrictions, measurements, and exactitude? Pastor Doug Batchelor’s free online sermon, “Laboring to Rest,” will help answer that question.

And our free online article, “The Sabbath in Prophecy,” will help you to answer why that question matters.

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