NEWARK -- During an Aug. 15, 2015 meeting, Mayor Joanne Minichetti told members of the Upper Saddle River Borough Council that a local member of the Jewish community had reached a deal with a utility company to create an eruv, a demarcation of an area that under Orthodox Jewish law allows people to undertake otherwise prohibited activities during the religion's Sabbath.
At the next meeting, Upper Saddle River's lawyer introduced a law that would prohibit people from posting anything on utility poles, court documents show. The Bergen Rockland Eruv Association contends the town passed the new ordinance with specific discriminatory intent.
That intent to discriminate lies at the heart of four lawsuits in progress in New Jersey. At issue is whether the leaders of three towns -- Mahwah, Montvale and Upper Saddle River -- used discriminatory remarks by community members to influence their decision on allowing for the construction of the eruv.
The New Jersey State's Attorney Office alleged this week that lawmakers in at least one of the towns, Mahwah, had a "discriminatory mindset" when they adopted a pair of ordinances limiting the Orthodox Jewish community's ability to create and use an eruv.
The office on Tuesday filed a nine-count complaint against Mahwah, alleging the ordinances deprived Orthodox Jews of their constitutional rights. The three other lawsuits, all filed by the firm Weil, Gotshal and Manages, allege similar actions in Upper Saddle River and Montvale, as well as in Mahwah.
Officials in Jackson also attempted to halt the construction of an eruv. The debate in the town arose when residents started complaining about existing, smaller eruvs. When the local eruv association petitioned the town to build an additional eruv, Jackson changed the right-of-way law in such a way that it prevented its creation.
No legal legal action has yet been taken in Jackson.
There are several towns with eruvs throughout New Jersey where there has been no pushback from the residents. Some of those towns, such as Lakewood, have a large Orthodox Jewish community.
Eruv case law goes back at least as far as 2000, when several residents and an eruv association filed a lawsuit in Tenafly. The lawsuit was one of the first prominent cases in the state to look at the issue of discrimination of an Orthodox Jewish community over the creation of an eruv.
Since then, other eruv associations have filed lawsuits in New York. In most cases, the associations have won.
The Tenafly case set the stage for the lawsuits taking place in New Jersey today, said Bruce Rosen, a partner at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, who represented Tenafly in the lawsuit.
In 2000, several Jewish individuals, along with the Tenafly Eruv Association, filed the suit against the borough after it denied them from building the eruv by posting markers on utility poles. The court ruled the town failed to enforce its own regulation prohibiting the use of poles by residents and so it could not deny the Eruv Association from using them.
The town petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but it was denied and the case settled in 2003.
Rosen said the idea that there could be religious issues in the management of utility poles was a relatively new idea in 2000.
"I think since then there's been a lot more discussion surrounding this issue and people have a better understanding of the issues," he said.
The Tenafly eruv case was one of the first in New Jersey to look at the whether discrimination played a part in limiting residents' ability to create an eruv.
Chaim Book, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, lived in Tenafly with his wife and children.
"In the public hearings there were some things said, very discriminatory things," Book said of Tenafly residents who spoke out against the construction of the eruv. "It was a very upsetting and ugly thing to go through."
In Tenafly, the leaders of the town listened to those discriminatory protests by the residents of the town and moved forward with actions that limited the Jewish community's rights under the constitution, Book said.
"It didn't seem like these people were even trying to hide it," he said. "But these people were in the minority I would say." Book has since moved to Teaneck where he says there is an eruv and no pushback from the community.
Despite the minority of complaints heard in the town hearings, Book said the town used those voices to make a decision on the construction of the eruv.
The State's Attorney General's complaint against Mahwah alleges the same.
"This is an extensive complaint ... but the bottom line is very simple -- the township council in Mahwah heard the angry, fear-driven voices of bigotry and acted to appease those voices," Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said in a statement.
In Mahwah, the police have dealt with several incidents of people vandalizing of the eruv. Chief of Police Jim Batelli said his department was alerted to the situation through two formal complaints. He said he has not seen any other acts of vandalizing since the attorney general filed the lawsuit Tuesday.
"I think the lawsuit was an eye opener for a lot of people," Batelli said. "I think people understood the consequences."
The attorney general's office put out a $25,000 reward for anyone who could identify the individuals responsible for the damaging of the eruv.
"We are now close to identifying those people involved," Batelli said.
Yehuda Buchweitz, a partner at the law firm representing the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association in Mahwah, Montvale and Upper Saddle River, said while each complaint is slightly different, the lawsuits all touch on the issue of discrimination.
"I don't believe [these lawsuits] are isolated from one another," he said. "I don't know if there is evidence that they conspired to violate our civil rights. But it wouldn't surprise me."
Rosen is taking his experience working on the Tenafly case and is now representing Upper Saddle River in its lawsuit. He plans to file an answer to the lawsuit next week.
"It is a much stronger factual case than Tenafly," he said, adding that the filing next week would include an extensive response and a motion to dismiss. "One person has caused a lot of this frenzy. It's a shame people do these things and don't realize how their actions impact us as a society"
The participation by civil liberty organizations in New Jersey on the current eruv cases has been muted.
The Anti Defamation League over the last several months released statements condemning the vandalism of the eruv in Mahwah and said in a statement it supported the attorney general's lawsuit.
Although it played an active part in the Tenafly suit, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said it is not at this time actively involved in the cases in Mahwah, Montvale and Upper Saddle River.