The Borough of Allenhurst, New Jersey has settled a lawsuit against an Orthodox Jewish group just one day after the group filed suit in federal court alleging violations of RLUIPA’s unreasonable limits and exclusions and equal terms provisions.  As part of the swift settlement, the Borough will permit an addition to a residential home to be used as a synagogue, and will avoid having to pay attorneys’ fees, which are available to prevailing plaintiffs in RLUIPA cases.

The plaintiffs, Ohel Yis’hak Sephardic Synagogue of Allenhurst and Rabbi Moshe Shamah, sought to convert the Rabbi’s existing home into a synagogue.  Rabbi Shamah serves a Sephardic synagogue in Brooklyn, but spends his summers in Allenhurst.  For the past 20 years, he has used his home in Allenhurst to host religious worship for friends and family during the summer months, because there is no synagogue in the Borough.  Many members of the Brooklyn congregation follow the Rabbi to Allenhurst during the summer, and have caused the summertime Sephardic Jewish population in Allenhurst to steadily rise over the years.  To accommodate the growing Jewish population, the plaintiffs sought to build an addition to the Rabbi’s home to operate a “small religious facility where Sephardic Jews can gather to pray and learn.”  One hiccup in the plaintiffs plans – Allenhurst’s zoning code does not permit places of worship – either as of right or as conditional uses – in any of the 7 zoning districts.  Yet, the Borough allows similar secular assembly uses, such as art and cultural instruction, art galleries, fitness centers and restaurants.

The plaintiffs sued the Borough on January 23, 2018 in a two-count complaint alleging violations of RLUIPA (complaint available here).  The next day, the parties agreed to settle the case and the Court entered a Consent Order.  In the Consent Order, the Borough acknowledges that its “outdated zoning code, which the [Borough] intends to immediately address” completely “excludes religious facilities from its jurisdiction and unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions and structures within its jurisdiction.”  The Borough also acknowledges that its zoning code “treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms as nonreligious assemblies and institutions.”  Despite these acknowledgments, the parties agree that the “Consent Order represents a compromise of a disputed claim, and shall not in any way be construed as an admission of wrongdoing or liability on the part of any Party.  Therefore, the parties shall be responsible for their own attorneys’ fees and costs associated with this action.”

The Consent Order in Ohel Yis’hak Sephardic Synagogue of Allenhurst v. The Borough of Allenhurst (D. N.J. 2018) is available here.