Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed Against NJ Officials Alleges Illegal Surveillance of Rabbi’s Home to Restrict Home Worship
Rutherford Institute Attorneys Accuse City Officials of Violating Rabbi’s Right to Religious Freedom
TOWNSHIP OF FREEHOLD, N.J. — In defense of the right of individuals to freely pray and worship in the privacy of their homes, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, in cooperation with attorney Gerald A. Marks of Marks & Klein, LLP, have filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court against the Township of Freehold, N.J., alleging that city officials conducted illegal surveillance of a local rabbi’s home in an attempt to restrict his right to gather with others privately at his home to pray and worship.
“This case could have far-reaching and chilling consequences for people of all faiths,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The government should not be involved in monitoring the religious practices of individuals in the privacy of their homes, nor should government officials attempt to intimidate religious people into ceasing to worship as they please.”
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. Allegedly, the Township retaliated against Rabbi Bernstein by beginning a campaign of video surveillance of the Rabbi’s home. Purportedly, the Township set up a camera directly across the street from the Rabbi’s home to monitor and record the comings and goings of individuals who gather there for observances of the Sabbath and other religious holidays. According to the complaint, the camera is only installed and in operation from late Friday afternoon, prior to the start of the Sabbath, until sometime on Saturday evening, after the Sabbath has concluded. In filing suit in federal court, Rutherford Institute attorneys have charged that the Township’s surveillance constitutes an act of retaliation for the state court lawsuit filed by Rabbi Bernstein and violates his right of access to the courts. Furthermore, the complaint asserts that by attempting to intimidate Rabbi Bernstein, his family and other worshippers, the Township has chilled their exercise of the right to freely worship and impaired their use and enjoyment of their property.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.
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