Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed Against NJ Officials Over Ordinance Restricting Use of Homes for Prayer Services, Illegal Surveillance of Rabbi’s Home
TOWNSHIP OF FREEHOLD, N.J. — Objecting to an ordinance recently adopted by the Township of Freehold, N.J., regulating religious activity in private homes, attorneys for Rabbi Avraham Bernstein have accused city officials of impeding residents’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs by worshipping in their homes.
Adopted on Sept. 25, 2007, the new ordinance defines “any structure or building that is used as the regular site for traditional services, meetings and/or gatherings of an organized religious body or community” as a “church or place of worship.” In filing an amended civil rights lawsuit in federal district court against the Township, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, in cooperation with attorney Gerald A. Marks of Marks & Klein, LLP, insist that the ordinance’s broad and unduly vague description will cause a chilling effect on persons who desire to hold gatherings of a religious nature in their homes.
The amended complaint broadens the lawsuit filed by Institute attorneys in August 2007 on behalf of Rabbi Bernstein, who has been subjected to illegal surveillance of his home by city officials, allegedly in an attempt to restrict his right to gather with others privately at his home to pray and worship. A copy of the amended complaint is available here.
“People of all faiths should be outraged over this latest effort by government officials to dictate what religious believers can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.
In keeping with religious tradition, Rabbi Avraham Bernstein, a resident of Freehold Township and a cleric in the worldwide Jewish organization Lubavitch Chabad, welcomes family, friends and neighbors to his home each Friday to observe the Sabbath, as well as other Jewish holidays. Rabbi Bernstein, along with his wife and eight children, lives in a single-family home in a residential zone that is located directly across from the Freehold Township Municipal building. During the Sabbath and on certain prescribed holidays, Rabbi Bernstein and his guests perform prayers and services in accordance with Orthodox Jewish Law, which requires the presence of ten men or a minyan to read from the Torah and recite other prayers.
The prayer services take place in the Bernsteins’ living room. However, in February 2007, the Township notified Rabbi Bernstein that the religious gatherings in his home violated local zoning ordinances and subsequently issued a summons charging the Rabbi with illegally operating a “house of worship.” Believing that the First Amendment protects his right to worship at home, Rabbi Bernstein filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court challenging the Township’s use of its zoning powers. A subsequent lawsuit filed in August 2007 accused the Township of conducting video surveillance of the Rabbi’s home, purportedly to monitor and record the comings and goings of individuals who gather there for observances of the Sabbath and other religious holidays.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.