Posted: November 6, 2002
On October 24, 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a ruling in favor of the Orthodox Jewish community in Tenafly, New Jersey. This important decision, overruling a lower court, stated that the town violated the free exercise rights of observant Jews by denying them permission to erect an eruv, or ceremonial demarcation of an area for religious observance.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) welcomed the decision as an important step in the fight for religious liberty and against bigotry.
According to Jewish law, an Orthodox Jew may not lift, push or carry objects outside his or her home on the Sabbath. In accordance with a religious convention practiced for over 2,000 years, however, these activities may be done outside the home on the Sabbath within an eruv, a ceremonial demarcation of an area. An eruv extends the space within which pushing and carrying is permitted beyond the boundaries of the home. The absence of an eruv restricts the ability of families with small children (who would use baby-strollers) or the physically disabled (who would use wheelchairs) from being able to attend synagogues and fulfill their ritual obligations of Sabbath study and prayer.
In Tenafly, the eruv would have been created by simply putting lechis (plastic strips, made of the same hard plastic as those coverings on ordinary ground wires) on already existing utility poles; those strips, along with pre-existing utility lines, would have created the eruv. As the court noted, "unless one knows which black plastic strips are lechis and which are utility wires, it is 'absolutely impossible' to distinguish the two." There are dozens of eruvs in communities across the United States, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis and New York City.
Tenafly denied permission for the eruv based on a little used provision which prohibits the posting of signs or other matter on any pole, tree or elsewhere in a public place. Throughout Tenafly, there is evidence of violations of this ordinance such as house numbers nailed into utility poles, permanent church directional signs bearing crosses, and lost animal signs, and the Borough officials made no effort to remove them. Moreover, every year the officials permit the local Chamber of Commerce to affix holiday displays such as wreaths, ribbons and lights to the utility poles for approximately six weeks during the Christmas holiday season. The unanimous court found that "the Borough's selective enforcement of its ordinance likely violated the Free Exercise Clause." By allowing many, many other violations but enforcing the ordinance against the eruv, the city "devalues Orthodox Jewish reasons for posting items on utility poles by judging them to be of lesser import than nonreligious reasons and thus singles out the plaintiffs' religiously motivated conduct for discriminatory treatment."
ADL filed an amicus brief in the case together with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, American Jewish Committee, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Hadassah, and the Rabbinical Council of America.