Historic Court Decision: Judge Upholds Constitutionality of an Eruv Under American Law

Justice Aaron Goldstein of Queens Supreme Court has handed down the first court decision in American history upholding the constitutionality of an eruv under American law, according to an official of the Jewish legal agency which served as attorney for the sponsors of the eruv, a device encircling a public area in which Orthodox Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath.

Goldstein ruled Monday that the eruv was a valid accommodation of the religious needs of certain members of minority religious groups and not a violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by Joseph Smith, a resident of Belle Harbor in Queens, against the City of New York and the Community Eruv of Belle Harbor, organized by Rabbi Jacob Reiner of Congregation Ohab Zedek. Smith indicated he planned to appeal.

Smith contended in his lawsuit that the grant of permits to the Eruv Committee by the New York City Department of General Service and Parks and Recreations violated the church-state separation principle because public property was involved in the assembly of the Belle Harbor eruv.

The Community Eruv organization, which sponsored the disputed eruv, was represented by Nathan Lewin of Washington and Dennis Rapps of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs. New York City was represented by Virginia Waters of the Corporation Counsel’s office.

Attorneys for the Eruv Committee and the City moved to dismiss Smith’s complaint, contending that the grants of the permits did not constitute establishment of religion but were a valid accommodation to religious practice.

BACKGROUND OF THE LAWSUIT

The filing of the lawsuit by Smith came against a background of animosity by non-Orthodox residents toward the 450 Orthodox families and four Orthodox synagogues in Belle Harbor.

While eruvim are widespread throughout the United States, particularly in heavily Jewish areas like many Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Belle Harbor eruv, which also covered Neponsit, is on the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens.

At the time Smith filed his lawsuit, acts of vandalism against the eruv were reported and both sides agreed to a moratorium on the construction, pending the court ruling.

Foes of the eruv were reported last March as fearing the eruv would change the character of the neighborhood by bringing more Orthodox Jews in as residents.

In a separate action before Goldstein, a friends of the court brief was filed on behalf of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbinical Alliance of America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

Commenting on the court ruling, Reiner said the Orthodox community was “delighted” and that he hoped it would now be possible to proceed with completion of the eruv.

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