Monday, March 04, 2024

RLUIPA Safe harbor Does Not Extend to Claims for Monetary Damages

 In Bair Brucha Inc. v. Township of Toms River, New Jersey, (D NJ, Feb. 29, 2024), a New Jersey federal district court granted plaintiffs judgment on the pleadings on their RLUIPA and Free Exercise challenges to discriminatory land use regulations that prevented their construction of a synagogue.  Plaintiffs claimed that Toms River had engaged in an orchestrated effort to prevent the growth of the Orthodox Jewish population in the town. Subsequent to the filing of this lawsuit, the township amended its zoning regulations in a settlement of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Justice Department. Plaintiffs did not deny that their original regulations violated the Equal Terms and the Exclusion and Limits provisions of RLUIPA. However, they contended that since the zoning ordinances have subsequently been amended, the township is covered by the safe harbor provision in RLUIPA that shields a local government from the preemptive force of RLUIPA if it subsequently amends its land use regulations to remove the burdensome or discriminatory provisions. The court held that the safe harbor provision does not extend to claims for monetary damages incurred before the township took corrective action.

Also finding a violation of the Free Exercise clause, the court concluded that the land use regulations were neither neutral nor generally applicable and that antisemitic animus was a motivating factor behind the land use regulations.