Thursday, August 29, 2013

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

The township of Southampton, New York, recently denied a request by the local Jewish community to put up an Eruv. For those of you who don't know, an Eruv is an enclosure, generally made through wire or string, which permits Orthodox Jews to do certain activities on Shabbat that would otherwise be forbidden to them (the fiction is that within the Eruv one has one cohesive "space", so carrying objects is characterized as carrying them within the Eruv, rather than between, say, two houses). I generally support accommodations such as these -- they cost little, and signal respect and accommodation toward minority communities. At the same time, American law is generally does not require such accommodations -- it is generally a legislative prerogative as to whether to grant or withhold the accommodation, and don't need to give much of a reason why. While the federal government and some states (I don't know if New York is one) have heightened protections for religious minorities, the baseline is basically that so long as the motive itself isn't unconstitutional (such as hostility towards a particular faith) and isn't wholly arbitrary or capricious, a decision to deny even a relatively minor accommodation such as this would stand.

So basically, Southampton is playing the game on easy. Just give a reason that isn't utterly ludicrous and doesn't openly flout the Constitution. You can do it right?
The zoning board had ruled that the eruv — PVC poles on 15 of Southampton Township’s telephone poles — would “alter the essential character of the neighborhood.”

In addition, the board took theological issue with the concept of the eruv itself, calling it a “loophole” that is “motivated by the personal desire … to be freed from the proscriptions of Jewish law,” the New York Post reported.
The "change the character of the neighborhood" argument ... I dunno. It might fly, given the deference that "arbitrary and capricious" implies. But the second argument about an eruv being a theological "loophole" is a huge mistake by the city that may doom their defense strategy.

It's not that their theology is wrong per se -- I've often joked that Orthodox Jews devote half their creative energies to coming up with ever-more restrictive religious proscriptions, and the other half to inventing increasingly creative ways to circumvent them. The problem, rather, is that they were doing theology at all. And that is a huge First Amendment no-no. Perhaps the clearest and most obvious Establishment Clause violation is the state taking it upon themselves to decide what tenets are valid aspects of a religious faith and which ones are "loopholes."

Without that statement, I'd guess Southampton would have had a fighting chance in court. With it -- good luck.


PG said...

Nothing wrong with the "essential character" part -- that's just reciting a standard part of the test for granting variances:

"that the requested use variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood."

But I also see how the board ended up going off the rails into constitutionally-impermissible theological musings: another part of the test is "that the alleged hardship has not been self-created."

As you say, the board should have stuck with the first ground. It's the freaking Hamptons, so they can get away with a lot of ridiculousness under the heading of "preserving the essential character of the neighborhood."

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