Jackson Township Council hires special counsel to handle religious lawsuits

JACKSON – The Township Council has appointed attorney Marci Hamilton to serve as a special counsel for all legal issues related to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Council members took the action on Feb. 26 after stating Jackson has a need to retain special counsel with expertise related to the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

Hamilton will bill Jackson at a rate of $800 per hour, according to the council. The minimum amount of the attorney’s contract will be $16,000. There is no maximum amount established.

Since 2017, there have been two lawsuits pending against Jackson; Agudath Israel of America and WR Property, LLC, v. Township of Jackson, and Oros Bais Yaakov High School v. Jackson Township and the Jackson Township Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Agudath Israel of America, which advocates for the interests of the Orthodox Jewish community, initiated legal action after the council’s adoption in March 2017 of an ordinance that prohibits the construction of dormitories in all zoning districts in Jackson.

Although no dormitories had been proposed, municipal officials said they were taking the action because dormitories were not previously addressed in the municipal code.

Agudath Israel of America has asserted the ordinance was enacted to prevent schools for Orthodox Jewish students, and dormitories to house those students, from being constructed in Jackson. The organization claims the ban violates federal law.

The organization amended its complaint after the council took action that members of the Orthodox Jewish community asserted would prevent the establishment of an eruv – an area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.

Regarding the hiring of a special counsel, Township Council President Robert Nixon said because the matter involves active litigation he could not say too much about the matter.

“However, I can share generally that the case involves a complex mix of zoning, planning and constitutional issues. The mayor and council have an obligation to defend the town and to work to develop a resolution that benefits all of our 56,000-plus residents.

“The issues involved made it critical that we retain the best legal advice available to us. I am hopeful this (hiring) helps bring some much needed clarity to the discussions and that with (Hamilton’s) experience these matters can be addressed fairly and quickly,” Nixon said.