Religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Protecting that core civil right should be at the top of every public official’s agenda. In Mahwah, it is not.
As Staff Writer Tom Nobile reported, the township has ordered a New York-based Jewish community to remove markings of an eruv in their town, saying it violates the town’s zoning regulations. Signs are prohibited on trees, rocks and utility poles in Mahwah. An eruv is a reasonable religious accommodation; it is not signage.
We have been down this road before. Officials in Tenafly tried to do much the same thing about an eruv. After a six-year legal battle, it relented in 2006 and allowed the Tenafly Eruv Association to expand its boundaries.
An eruv creates a perimeter inside which Orthodox Jews can perform tasks outside their house that would be otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath. For example, pushing a stroller or a wheelchair. In some places, an eruv might be denoted by wire hung between utility poles or small plastic strips. In Mahwah, it would be white PVC pipes on utility poles. Orange & Rockland Utilities, which owns the poles, has given permission to the South Monsey Eruv Fund to install the pipe.
We understand some may not like the aesthetics of the piping, just as some people don’t like solar panels attached to utility poles. But one, these are utility poles, not majestic oaks. And two, the ability to worship without government interference is a constitutional right.
There is no constitutional right to a sign that tells motorists this is an Elks town or that a commercial place of business is a mile to the left. But plain markers that allow observant Jews to push a baby stroller are not in the same league.
Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet said, “This sends a very strong message to those who choose to violate our sign ordinances.” It sends a very different kind of strong message about Mahwah, a township that also has been in a longstanding disagreement with the Ramapough Lenape Nation over its erection of tepees.
An online petition against the eruv, titled “Protect the Quality of Our Community in Mahwah,” lists over 1,200 supporters. Some of the comments are ugly: “This group of people are known for entering a community and taking it over for their own advantage. They are known for taking a lovely community and turning it into a run down, dirty, unwanted place to live.”
That is not a comment against signage, but one against Orthodox Jews. Some white PVC piping is not an overt expression of any faith. It is not akin to placing crosses on public structures; it’s plastic piping on utility poles with permission from the owners of the utility poles.
Mahwah officials need to be leaders here. No town can decide who gets to move in based on religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. And no town should be embracing a “zoning ordinance” that is used not to prevent the spread of unwanted advertising and signage, but rather to make it harder for members of a religious community to live and worship.
The eruv should stay.