A decades-old feud between a New York village and an Orthodox Jewish community has heated up again in federal court. On Jan. 23, U.S. District Judge Vincent Briccetti greenlighted a Hasidic Jewish school’s lawsuit against the town of Airmont. The Central United Talmudical Academy of Monsey filed suit in November 2018, claiming Airmont government officials and the local school district used discriminatory zoning laws to dissuade Orthodox Jewish residents from living in the village.
The conflict dates to Airmont’s incorporation in 1991. The newly formed village adopted zoning laws that prohibited Hasidic Jews from having worship meetings in homes—a common practice since the religion does not allow driving on the Jewish Sabbath. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit alleging the village was incorporated primarily to exclude Hasidic Jews. The Justice Department cited remarks like one made by Airmont businessman Robert Fletcher, who allegedly said at a community meeting that “ the only reason we formed this village is to keep those … Jews out of here.’”
The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the Justice Department. A subsequent dispute in 2005 ended with the village agreeing it would not use zoning laws to disrupt the religious exercise of the Orthodox Jewish community. That consent decree expired in 2011.
The current dispute arose from an attempt by Central UTA of Monsey to expand the 21-acre property it purchased in 2016. Members of the Hasidic community are required to educate their children at a religious school with separate classes for boys and girls. Airmont officials have only approved the use of the land for a school with 167 students or less even though the same site previously housed a private school with 400 students from the larger Jewish population. As a result, many local Hasidic families must homeschool or send their children to private schools farther away. Several families who want to move to Airmont have not because of the lack of available schooling for their children, according to the lawsuit.
Since Central UTA requested approval for expanding on and improving the site, it claims it has been the victim of a coordinated campaign of discrimination. The lawsuit cited comments about the dispute on social media and local news articles that called the Hasidic community a cult, thieves, and leeches on public welfare.
First Liberty’s Keisha Russell, who represents the school, said while Airmont officials claim the restrictive zoning is meant to preserve its tax base and community character, “ultimately you have to look out how their decisions are affecting the religious practice of an entire group of people and only that group of people.”