Landmark Ruling Halts Unconstitutional Taxpayer Funding of NJ Yeshiva and Seminary

May 26, 2016
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Plaintiffs Rev. Craig Hirshberg and Gloria Schor Andersen Plaintiffs Rev. Craig Hirshberg and Gloria Schor Andersen

Court rules that Christie administration's $11 million+ grant to religious schools violated NJ Constitution

In a groundbreaking victory against government sponsorship of religion, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that the administration of Gov. Chris Christie violated the New Jersey Constitution when it awarded more than $11 million to two religious institutions of higher learning. This decision (PDF) by the Appellate Division represents the first major state court precedent in almost 40 years concerning New Jersey's prohibition on using taxpayer funding to support a religious ministry.

The ACLU of New Jersey, national ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State successfully challenged New Jersey's grants of $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in Lakewood, and $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, both of which are dedicated to religious training and engage in discrimination. The yeshiva trains Orthodox Jewish rabbis, excludes women, and employs only male, Jewish faculty. The seminary "prepares women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries" and permits only Christians to be degree students or faculty.

"This is a victory for civil rights and a victory for New Jersey taxpayers, who should never have to subsidize institutions that discriminate or that exist to teach their particular religious doctrine," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Everyone has a fundamental constitutional right to worship freely. At the same time, the government must respect the right of New Jersey taxpayers to know that their money will never be responsible for propping up particular sects' religious ministries."

The unconstitutional funding for the two schools has been on hold as a result of the legal challenge.

The New Jersey Constitution specifically forbids taxpayer funds from going toward the maintenance of a church or ministry, as the organizations argued before the court on April 11, 2016. This ruling sets the first New Jersey precedent regarding which religious institutions qualify as a "ministry."

"New Jersey's Constitution forbids giving state funding to divinity schools, and for very good reason," said Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United's Associate Legal Director. "Tax dollars should go toward projects that benefit all the people of the state, not ones that aid only particular faiths."

In April 2013, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary stood out on a list the Christie administration released of 176 New Jersey colleges and universities set to receive funds for construction projects through a voter-approved bond sale. Both institutions train clergy, provide religious instruction, and engage in discrimination on the basis of religion or gender.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the ACLU-NJ, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, a former Hebrew school teacher, and two other New Jersey taxpayers.

"Today's ruling sends a powerful reminder that the government shouldn't be in the business of underwriting clergy training," said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

In the brief filed against Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, the plaintiffs cited three violations of the state Constitution, which prohibits using taxpayer funds:

  • For the maintenance of any church or ministry
  • To subsidize or build facilities at which religious services or instruction will take place
  • To subsidize private interests rather than the public interest

Although the court based its ruling solely on the New Jersey Constitution and state precedent, the groups also argued that New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination prohibits any place of public accommodation from discriminating based on religion or sex. While the yeshiva and seminary are private religious entities that are permitted to discriminate with their own resources, the state government cannot give special benefits that subsidize and support that discrimination.

"Although the court did not reach the plaintiff's sex discrimination claim, its invalidation of the Christie administration's $10.6 million grant to the yeshiva ensures that public dollars will not contribute to the exclusion of women," said Galen Sherwin, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. "As a private religious institution, the yeshiva can limit its enrollment exclusively to men, but the state should play no role in supporting such discrimination."

The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education's website identifies each school as a "theological institution." The court's decision ruled that in this case, there was no significant legal distinction between sectarian institutions of higher education and sectarian primary and secondary schools.

"Here, unlike other broad-based liberal arts colleges that received grants, both the Yeshiva and the Seminary are sectarian institutions. Their facilities funded by the Department's grants indisputably will be used substantially if not exclusively for religious instruction. ...

"We discern no principled distinction between the consumption of public resources that was invalidated under Article I, Paragraph 3 in Resnick and the payment of taxpayer-funded grants to the Yeshiva and the Seminary. The fact that most or many of the students at the Yeshiva and the Seminary do not eventually become 'ministers,' rabbis, or other clergy does not cure the constitutional infirmity, just as the fact that the adults and children who received religious instruction in Resnick were laypeople did not alter the Court's analysis. Nor does the fact that the Department's awards to these sectarian schools were part of a larger competitive grant process involving non-sectarian recipients solve the problem. The public school buildings in Resnick were also used by non-religious groups, but that did not eliminate the district's constitutional violation in allowing religious groups to use them on a subsidized basis," the opinion read.

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Marijuana Legalization Would Bring 100s of Millions to NJ in Tax Revenue, Says New Report by NJ Policy Groups

May 24, 2016
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NJ Policy Perspective & NJ United for Marijuana Reform analysis projects $300 million in annual sales tax revenue to come with legalization for adults

NJPP-NJUMR

New Jersey would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue by legalizing marijuana, a new report (PDF) released by New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform has found. Legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana for use by adults aged 21 and older would ultimately add an estimated $300 million in sales tax to state coffers rather than divert consumers to the illegal market, the two policy-focused groups said at a Trenton press conference.

"The lessons from around the country are loud and clear: marijuana legalization makes fiscal sense, and it makes practical sense," said New Jersey Policy Perspective Policy Analyst Brandon McKoy, a co-author of the report. "Expanding economic opportunities and addressing our persistent budget deficit aren't the only reasons to legalize and regulate marijuana, but they are extremely persuasive ones."

The report estimates that New Jersey would bring in at least $300 million annually if marijuana legalization were fully implemented, using graduated tax increases over a three-year period, going from 5 percent, to 15 percent, to the final rate of 25 percent. The first-of-its-kind report in New Jersey relies on conservative estimates, predicting the tax revenue only from marijuana sales. The report's projections are based on the experiences of other states, current information on marijuana users in New Jersey and the surrounding area, current pricing, and the tax structure of other states as they relate to New Jersey's interests.

NJUMR NJPP

Including a small percentage of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians from counties neighboring New Jersey who are expected to participate in the legal, regulated market, the state could take in approximately $305.4 million once the sales tax is fully scaled to 25 percent, the report said. The report estimates that approximately 343,100 New Jerseyans would participate in a legal marketplace, spending $1.2 billion each year. Currently, New Jerseyans spend more than $850 million on marijuana each year. The calculation of tax revenue was based on a price of $350 per ounce, similar to the current estimated price of $343 per ounce in New Jersey.

Legalization would bring other economic benefits not covered in the report, such as job creation, growth in business, research and development, and boosts in property, agricultural, business, and income taxes. In addition, it would increase public safety, protect young people, save resources, advance racial justice, bolster public health, and reduce the strain on the police, corrections, and the criminal justice system, the report argues. New Jersey arrests more people for marijuana possession each year than for any other crime. A June 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that 58 percent of New Jerseyans support legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for use by adults aged 21 and older.

"Facing yet another budget shortfall, New Jersey is again confronted with the untenable choice of either further draconian cuts or massive tax increases in order to balance the state budget," said New Jersey United for Marijuana Steering Committee member Bill Caruso, Of Counsel at Archer & Grenier and former Executive Director of the New Jersey Assembly. "But, we have the ability to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue and create tremendous economic opportunities in our state by capitalizing on New Jersey's geographic location and our world-class education and health care infrastructure. It's time for New Jersey to get off the sidelines and into the game to join success stories like Colorado and Washington State. For every day that passes without safe and responsible legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana in our state, we are leaving money on the table."

To set up a legal, regulated market and increase public health, the report recommends:

  • Introducing graduated tax increases in the first three years
  • Building flexibility into the tax rate to account for the challenges of transitioning from an illegal, unregulated market to a legal, regulated one
  • Creating a board or committee focused on calculating the right tax rate for New Jersey, preventing use by individuals under 21, undercutting the prices of the illegal market, and maximizing revenue for the state
  • Using tax revenue for critical state needs, such as expansion of drug-treatment, drug-abuse prevention, and justice reinvestment

"New Jersey can't afford to wait – it's time to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana," said Ari Rosmarin, a co-author and the Public Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which sits on the steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. "With just one vote, the Legislature can raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually, help end a civil rights injustice, and make sure that no more New Jerseyans see their lives ruined for something every president in the last 24 years has done. It's time for common sense, and that means ending prohibition again."

Four states and Washington, D.C., have fully legalized marijuana for adult use, and Nevada voters will consider a ballot measure in November to legalize marijuana. Twenty-four states, plus Washington, D.C., and Guam, have instituted medical marijuana programs, and 17 states have decriminalized marijuana possession but not legalized it. States that have legalized marijuana have seen revenues outpace initial estimates. Colorado is on pace to bring in $140 million in tax revenue from marijuana this year, according to the Tax Foundation. According to the Oregon Employment Department, the state has added 2,165 new jobs since its legal marijuana program launched in October 2015, and the sector is expected to see significant additional growth in the coming months.

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ACLU-NJ Warns Lawmakers That AC Takeover Plans Raise Constitutional Concerns

May 24, 2016
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Governor and Senate President’s proposal would jeopardize democratic values in Atlantic City

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ sent a letter today warning lawmakers of constitutional and civil rights concerns raised by S1711 and the companion Assembly bill, A2569, the Atlantic City recovery legislation, which provides for state takeover if the city does not put in place a plan within 150 days that the state determines is "likely to achieve financial stability." S1711/A2569 would then allow the state to take over Atlantic City anytime within five years after the 150-day period. The letter urged members of the state Senate and Assembly, as well as Governor Chris Christie, to preserve local control for Atlantic City residents in the compromise governing Atlantic City's financial recovery, and to ensure that any compromise does not take a form that unduly impacts the voting rights of Atlantic City residents.

"The takeover plan included in the proposed compromise is exceedingly broad and raises several constitutional and civil rights concerns," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "The state may unilaterally decide on a state takeover, which would then cede the rights of Atlantic City residents, who are predominantly low-income people of color, to an unaccountable and extremely powerful state overseer, essentially replacing a democratically elected local government. Fixing Atlantic City's financial situation is an important priority, but any solution must respect the rights of Atlantic City residents to a local government that is accountable to the people, and not undermine the right to vote."

The letter (PDF) calls the plan an unprecedented grant of locally held power to the state government. The ACLU-NJ explains that the plan puts residents' voting rights in jeopardy and disparately impacts low-income communities of color, which both raise concerns regarding equal protection of the law.

Under S1711/A2569, Atlantic City has 150 days to put forward a five-year fiscal recovery plan for State approval. If the State rejects the plan after 150 days, or any time in the five years thereafter, the State would take over all of Atlantic City municipal government's functions, including any mayoral responsibilities that the state determines could relate to financial rehabilitation. All city council functions would be subject to State review and veto, and the State would be empowered to dissolve any municipality, board, commission, or department.

Such a sweeping grant of authority would allow the State to override municipal decisions, whether on allowing residents to use public bathrooms that match their gender identities or on creating a civilian review board to oversee police, to cite examples the ACLU-NJ mentioned in its letter. These actions would trivialize the right to vote by essentially removing all power from locally elected public officials.

Just as troubling, the State itself exercises total discretion in determining whether to take over Atlantic City. The bills provide for the takeover if the Commissioner of Community Affairs determines, in his "sole and exclusive discretion, [that] the recovery plan is...not likely to achieve financial stability for the municipality."

Additionally, removing local control from low-income communities of color also raises equal protection concerns. The vast majority — 84 percent — of Atlantic City residents are people of color, compared with 41 percent statewide. The takeover bill refers specifically to a municipality's property values, a proxy for the wealth of its citizens, meaning the people set to lose their local democratic rights under this bill are those who live in poor communities.

"Removing local accountability for leadership is troubling, and we urge the Legislature to consider the long-term rights of Atlantic City residents in any compromise," ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood said. "The difficult choices involved in returning Atlantic City to prosperity must be subject to local democratic review. The right to vote is fundamental, and removing all power from local elected officials renders that right meaningless."

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Denial of Mosque Permit Violated Law, Argues ACLU-NJ

May 13, 2016
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The ACLU of New Jersey today took a stand for the rights of Muslim New Jerseyans who have tried to build a mosque only to be denied for reasons that bear the signs of religious discrimination. The ACLU-NJ, the national ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and other civil rights organizations joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the organization Muslim Advocates (PDF) in U.S. District Court to support the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, whose proposal for a mosque in Bernards Township, in Somerset County, has been thwarted by the local government after a years-long ordeal.

"Behind each hollow excuse used to deny the Islamic Society's application lurks an undeniable motive: discrimination based on religion," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "The congregants of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge have the fundamental right to worship freely, as all Americans do. By moving the goal posts for members of one faith only, the Bernards planning board has engaged in the worst kind of NIMBYism."

The plaintiffs, as well as the ACLU-NJ, Muslim Advocates, and the national ACLU, argue that the township, including its planning board and township committee, violated the Islamic Society's rights guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Constitution.

"It violates federal law and the Constitution for local government to have one set of zoning standards for churches and another for mosques," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Bernards has given exceptions to other religious groups on these zoning restrictions — restrictions that are so malleable, the town changed them whenever the Islamic Society showed it could meet them. It's time for the charade in Bernards to end, and it's time for the courts to call the actions of the board what they are: discriminatory, improper, and not representative of who we are as Americans."

The amicus brief gives an overview of the pernicious discrimination against American Muslims in the 21st century, with a particular focus on similar cases of zoning restrictions that thinly veil religious discrimination. The issue arose most prominently in 2010, when an anti-Muslim backlash formed in response to the planned construction of the Park51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan.

"While Muslims make up about one percent of the U.S. population, of the 51 RLUIPA land-use investigations initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice in the first decade since the statute passed in 2000, 14 percent involved mosques or other Islamic structures," the brief said.

The town has a policy setting a 3:1 ratio for church seating to parking spots for churches, auditoriums and theaters. An uproar broke out in 2012 when the Islamic Society sought to build a mosque, calculating that it would have 50 parking spots based on its expected capacity of 150 people. Although organizations have had that ratio waived, the planning board balked, trying to find alternate formulas, including ones involving the number of prayer rugs that could fit – ostensibly to increase the number of parking spaces to justify denial of the application.

The Islamic Society's lawsuit, filed March 10, came nearly four years after its initial application in August 2012. Bernards Township held 39 hearings, concerning issues such as parking and the space a prayer rug would take up, before ultimately denying the application, according to the Islamic Society's brief. In an effort to prevent the Bernards zoning ordinance from applying to the mosque, the town board planner and the planning board's attorney wrote a memo claiming that the policy applied literally, to "churches" exclusively rather than to other religious buildings such as mosques.

In addition to the ACLU-NJ and national ACLU, several other civil rights groups signed onto the Muslim Advocates brief: Asian Americans Advancing Justice, ColorofChange, Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, Arab American Institute, Interfaith Center of New York, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, South Asian Americans Leading Together, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Islamic Society of Central Jersey, Center for New Community, National Council of Jewish Women, Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis & Women for Reform Jadaism, and the National Sikh Campaign.

Read the friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) in the case, captioned Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Township of Bernards.

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AC Compromise Must Protect Residents' Rights, Say NJ NAACP and ACLU-NJ Leaders

May 10, 2016
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The NAACP New Jersey State Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey issue the following statement on S1711, Governor Christie’s and Senate President Sweeney’s proposal to grant the State the authority to take over New Jersey municipalities with troubled finances.

The following can be attributed to NAACP New Jersey State Conference President Richard Smith and ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:

Udi Ofer

“The proposal being pushed forward by Governor Christie for the State to take over the operations and finances of Atlantic City raises serious concerns for the civil rights and civil liberties of Atlantic City residents.

“A cornerstone of our democracy is the right of the people to elect their local government and to ensure, through the ballot box and public participation, that it is accountable to the people. While we have no doubt that elected officials on both sides of this debate want to prevent Atlantic City from falling into bankruptcy, we urge lawmakers to address this crisis without abandoning basic democratic principles of accountable and open government.

“The Governor’s and Senate President’s plan would essentially dissolve local government by providing the State of New Jersey with the authority to dismantle any of Atlantic City’s municipal authorities or contracts, and veto any City Council vote. The State would be able to overturn and rewrite old ordinances, and it could institute entirely new city laws. State overseers would have powers to work in greater secrecy, sidestepping our open meeting laws and keeping the public in the dark.

“We hope that lawmakers from all factions across the state will come together, see beyond politics, and reach a compromise. Nothing less than the fundamental rights of Atlantic City residents and the integrity of our democratic system of government is at stake here.”

Graduation Case Settlement Provides Protections for NJ's Class of 2016

May 6, 2016
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NJDOE Agrees To Adopt Rules For New Graduation Testing Requirements; Legal Issues With Validity Of New Testing Requirement Remain Open

New Jersey students, families and the Education Law Center have reached a settlement agreement with the New Jersey Department of Education, resolving a battle over requirements for New Jersey students to graduate this year. Under this agreement, students in the class of 2016 will have a variety of options to fulfill graduation testing requirements and some new protections for the appeals process.

Prior to the lawsuit, NJDOE attempted to impose testing requirements in a manner that — as the settlement agreement acknowledged — did not follow state law, which requires NJDOE to give the public prior notice and an opportunity to provide comment. After the lawsuit was filed, NJDOE proposed new regulations and is going through the process required by law. However, the current settlement was necessary because the process will not be complete before this year’s graduation dates.

The students and families in the lawsuit are represented by ELC, the ACLU of New Jersey and the Gibbons law firm pro bono.

“We filed this lawsuit because state education officials imposed a new and controversial testing regime for graduation without following the basic procedures for adopting new rules,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “We have successfully redressed that legal violation since the state has now proposed rules for the new testing requirements, giving parents, educators, and advocates the opportunity to submit comments, concerns and objections.”

Under the NJDOE’s attempted policy, outlined in a 2014 memo (PDF) sent by New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe, students would have had to meet minimum scores on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests or other approved exams, such as the SAT or ACT, in order to graduate, or utilize a limited portfolio review process.

Under the agreement students who do not meet test-based graduation requirements will have greater protections and options in using a portfolio review process as an alternative pathway to graduation until the adoption of final regulations. In addition, if a school district determines that a student has not met the graduation testing requirement, including through the portfolio review process, that determination is immediately reviewed by the NJDOE. The settlement also sets time frames by which districts must inform students that a portfolio review is required, and requires NJDOE to make public important data on the process.

“The State Education Department placed students in an untenable situation by ignoring the law and imposing new graduation requirements by fiat, which it is not permitted to do,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Through this settlement, we hope to remove some of the hurdles the Department placed in front of students, as the window of time before graduation rapidly closes.”

Although the settlement covers the class of 2016 and members of other graduating classes until the new regulations are adopted, the agreement does not address potential legal issues arising from the NJDOE’s proposed graduation rule changes currently under consideration. ELC and the ACLU-NJ have raised a number of concerns about the pending rules, but any legal challenge to those rules can only proceed after the State Board of Education has formally adopted the regulations.

“While there was no perfect solution available given the situation the DOE created, we are hopeful that no student who is entitled to graduate is foreclosed from reaching that goal. We will continue to defend every New Jersey student’s fundamental constitutional right to an education,” Barocas said.

The settlement makes significant procedural and substantive changes to the NJDOE’s portfolio review process, an alternative that can fulfill testing requirements for students who do not reach the minimum test scores required on PARCC or other tests.

The settlement sets forth the following terms for the portfolio review process:

  • NJDOE will notify districts that they must provide information about the portfolio process within five days of the settlement agreement’s execution to the parents of students who still need the portfolio review to graduate. According to the NJDOE’s own estimates, as of mid-April this year between 10,000 and 20,000 seniors still had not met the testing requirement.
  • The portfolio process will be available to all students, regardless of their participation in testing or their performance on assessments.
  • Districts — rather than the DOE — will determine whether a student has met graduation proficiency standards, and DOE will review appeals to verify portfolio completion and provide technical assistance to districts that request it. 
  • Students can satisfy a portfolio review by submitting earlier graded classwork or completing tasks set by the district, as well as a combination of the two. 
  • For students who are English language learners, the districts can administer and review portfolios in a student's native language. 
  • Districts must provide students with staff assistance to complete the portfolio review process.
  • Districts can allow students awaiting final portfolio review who have met all other requirements to participate in graduation ceremonies.
  • The NJDOE will allow districts to accept and review class of 2016 members’ portfolios up to September 1, 2016. 
  • If a district determines that a student has not satisfied the portfolio review, it must provide a written explanation, with notice that the materials will be sent to the NJDOE for an automatic review. That notice must also include information about the right of students to appeal the district’s decision to the Commissioner of Education. 
  • Under the settlement, NJDOE must provide ELC with data, disaggregated by district and student subgroups, on how many students have successfully completed portfolio reviews and how many have not yet satisfied the graduation requirement. This information, provided at several intervals over the course of the year, will allow ELC to monitor the impact of the new graduation policies, particularly on at-risk groups of students.

The settlement acknowledges that the NJDOE failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act — the law setting forth procedures government agencies must follow to enact new rules — by using memos and rules that were not duly adopted, to institute new policies. To implement new regulations, the law requires a public comment and review period, as well as formal codification. The NJDOE neglected to observe any of those requirements when it rolled out the new graduation standards in 2014.

In response to the filing of this lawsuit in September 2015, the NJDOE in January 2016 began the formal rulemaking process required to change its previous rules for graduation. The new rules have not been formally adopted, but on April 6 the State Board of Education approved publishing the rules for public comment.

Although NJDOE is now adopting regulations through the proper process, the ACLU-NJ and ELC have already submitted comments raising concerns regarding those proposed regulations. The organizations raised concerns specifically about the new regulations’ potential impact on at-risk students, English language learners, students with disabilities and students with other special needs.

As many as 10,000 students annually, including more than half of all ELL graduates, previously used an alternative assessment to satisfy graduation requirements that the NJDOE improperly stopped utilizing and that is not included in the proposed regulations. In addition, codifying the use of fee-based commercial tests such as the SAT and ACT as graduation requirements raises questions about equal access and alignment with state standards.

ELC and the ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor NJDOE’s compliance with the settlement and the progress of New Jersey seniors still trying to comply with the new requirements for graduation. Parents, students, and educators who have questions or concerns about the settlement and its implementation are encouraged to contact ELC.

AG: NJ Police Made Nearly 25k Marijuana Possession Arrests in 2014

May 4, 2016
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NJ's 24,689 arrests prompts renewed call from NJ United for Marijuana Reform for legalization

In light of news that New Jersey had its second-highest year for number of marijuana possession arrests in its history in 2014, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform renewed its call for the New Jersey Legislature to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults aged 21 and older.

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office on April 29 released its 2014 uniform crime statistics, which included the number of marijuana possession arrests: 24,689.

"When I look at the nearly 25,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2014, I see nearly 25,000 missed opportunities for law enforcement to have done work that actually keeps people safe," said NJUMR steering committee member and Clark Municipal Prosecutor J.H. Barr, secretary and former president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association. "Instead, law enforcement spends enormous resources to arrest and try people for using a drug that a majority of people believe should be legal. It's time for common sense on marijuana policy, and that means legalization and regulation in New Jersey."

Police made more arrests for marijuana possession in 2014 than for any other crime that year. Of all drug possession arrests made in 2014 statewide, more than half were for possession of marijuana. The number of marijuana possession arrests in New Jersey in 2014 was the state's second-highest of any year on record. In 2013, police made 76 more marijuana possession arrests than 2014.

"Reform of marijuana laws is one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time," said NAACP New Jersey State Conference President Richard Smith. "Black New Jerseyans are almost three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites in the Garden State. That wide disparity in marijuana enforcement makes Blacks that much more likely to have their homes, their families, and their jobs put in jeopardy for a low-level offense that shouldn't be considered a crime to begin with."

Legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state annually, based on conservative estimates and the experiences of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State, which have legalized marijuana along with Washington, D.C., which has not yet implemented a legal marketplace.

"Every single day the Legislature refuses to advance legalization, people have their lives destroyed for using a substance that every president in the last 24 years has admitted to using. Where are our politicians hiding?" said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. "Behind every one of the 24,689 arrests in 2014 is a person whose life has been interrupted and often damaged from the consequences our criminal justice system imposes for a marijuana arrest. It's not often that the Legislature has an opportunity to improve people's lives, raise hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue, and end a civil rights injustice all in one vote, but that's exactly what marijuana legalization would mean."

New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, launched in February 2015, is a broad-based coalition with members from law enforcement, civil rights, and medical communities who advocate for the legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana in New Jersey. NJUMR's steering committee members include the ACLU of New Jersey, Former President and Current Secretary of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association J.H. Barr, Archer & Greiner Of Counsel Bill Caruso, the Latino Action Network, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Princeton-based psychiatrist and co-founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation Dr. David Nathan, and NORML NJ.

Examine the data firsthand at the NJ Attorney General's website, and join the campaign to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in New Jersey with NJUMR.

ACLU-NJ Urges Christie to Retain State’s Role in Refugee Resettlement

May 3, 2016
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Letter and OPRA requests were sent to governor and agency responsible for refugees, who are most heavily vetted of all people coming to U.S.

The ACLU-NJ sent a letter on May 3 urging Governor Christie to reverse his administration's decision to terminate the State's role in resettling refugees who have fled to escape untenable conditions in their own countries. The ACLU-NJ filed public records requests with state agencies seeking details about the decision to place resettlement responsibilities solely in the hands of private organizations.

The letter (PDF) and Open Public Records Act (PDF) request went to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and a second records request (PDF) was sent to the New Jersey Department of Human Services' Division of Family Development, which has been responsible for coordinating New Jersey's resettlement of refugees.

"Governor Christie's divisive and inflammatory rhetoric against refugees has been a stark contrast to New Jersey's long tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and violence overseas," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "This is not who we are as Americans, and this is not who we are as New Jerseyans. We call on Governor Christie to stop scapegoating the very people fleeing violence and civil war and to restore New Jersey's tradition of opening its arms to people escaping persecution."

In April, the New Jersey Department of Human Services sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement providing notice that New Jersey would stop playing a role in resettling refugees, transferring those duties to private nonprofit organizations. The ACLU-NJ's letter exhorted Christie to reverse the decision, which followed his announcement in November that New Jersey would no longer settle Syrian refugees. The organization's OPRA request sought information about the decision, including correspondence regarding refugees, details about the number of staff working on refugee resettlement, meeting minutes, and other records regarding refugees.

"It seems that rather than help resettle any Syrian refugees, Christie decided to cut the state out of placement of refugees at all," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "By definition, these are people fleeing places that are so dangerous that their lives are at risk just by staying. The Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, so Christie just turned his back on people of all nationalities. It demonstrates a lack of compassion and an abandonment of our historical role as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world."

The ACLU has long advocated for the rights of refugees, who are fleeing some of the world's most horrific conditions and subjected to the most intensive screening process of all immigrants to the United States. The process takes between 18 to 24 months on average, according to the U.S. State Department.

"Our country has long been a refuge for families in desperate need of safety, and most Americans are deeply proud of that history," said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. "Unfortunately, with refugees' lives hanging in the balance, Governor Christie's decision seems rooted in a political desire to be seen as unwelcoming to immigrants, even if it means betraying our most important values."

The ACLU-NJ's letter to Christie and public records requests are available to read online.

The ACLU-NJ sent a letter on May 3 urging Governor Christie to reverse his administration’s decision to terminate the State’s role in resettling refugees who have fled to escape untenable conditions in their own countries. The ACLU-NJ filed public records requests with state agencies seeking details about the decision to place resettlement responsibilities solely in the hands of private organizations.

The letter and Open Public Records Act request went to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and a second records request was sent to the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Family Development, which has been responsible for coordinating New Jersey’s resettlement of refugees.

“Governor Christie’s divisive and inflammatory rhetoric against refugees has been a stark contrast to New Jersey’s long tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and violence overseas,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “This is not who we are as Americans, and this is not who we are as New Jerseyans. We call on Governor Christie to stop scapegoating the very people fleeing violence and civil war and to restore New Jersey’s tradition of opening its arms to people escaping persecution.”

In April, the New Jersey Department of Human Services sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement providing notice that New Jersey would stop playing a role in resettling refugees, transferring those duties to private nonprofit organizations. The ACLU-NJ’s letter exhorted Christie to reverse the decision, which followed his announcement in November that New Jersey would no longer settle Syrian refugees. The organization’s OPRA request sought information about the decision, including correspondence regarding refugees, details about the number of staff working on refugee resettlement, meeting minutes, and other records regarding refugees. 

“It seems that rather than help resettle any Syrian refugees, Christie decided to cut the state out of placement of refugees at all,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “By definition, these are people fleeing places that are so dangerous that their lives are at risk just by staying. The Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, so Christie just turned his back on people of all nationalities. It demonstrates a lack of compassion and an abandonment of our historical role as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.”

The ACLU has long advocated for the rights of refugees, who are fleeing some of the world’s most horrific conditions and subjected to the most intensive screening process of all immigrants to the United States. The process takes between 18 to 24 months on average, according to the U.S. State Department.

“Our country has long been a refuge for families in desperate need of safety, and most Americans are deeply proud of that history,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “Unfortunately, with refugees’ lives hanging in the balance, Governor Christie’s decision seems rooted in a political desire to be seen as unwelcoming to immigrants, even if it means betraying our most important values.”

The ACLU-NJ’s letter to Christie and public records requests to the Office of the Governor and DHS Division of Family Development are available to read online.

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ACLU-NJ Defends NJ Man Ticketed For Flying Trump Flags

April 21, 2016
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ACLU-NJ Defends NJ Man Ticketed For Flying Trump Flags

West Long Branch man was ticketed under unconstitutional ordinance for flying flags that said “Trump” and “Make America Great Again” more than 30 days before election

The ACLU of New Jersey and Eric D. Sherman, a partner with New York-based law firm Pryor Cashman, have teamed up to defend the rights of a man who was ticketed under an unconstitutional West Long Branch ordinance for flying flags supporting Donald Trump.

Joseph Hornick was cited under a policy that forbids the display of political signs until 30 days before an election. Hornick’s flags read, “Trump – Make America Great Again!”

“I am a proud, passionate Donald Trump supporter, and I would be willing to pay any fine in exchange for my free speech, or even serve jail time if it comes to that – but as an American, I shouldn’t have to pay that kind of price for expressing my beliefs,” said Joseph Hornick, a longtime West Long Branch resident. “I shouldn’t be punished for exercising my constitutional right to free speech. I’m not breaking the law by flying my Trump flags; rather, the borough is breaking the law by having this unconstitutional ordinance on the books.”

“My Trump flags are not coming down. And now, I’m even more determined to keep them flying,” Hornick added.

West Long Branch, in Monmouth County, first ticketed Hornick on March 25 for flying his Trump flags after Hornick had communicated with the police department about theft and vandalism of his banners. When police officers arrived, they cited Hornick under an ordinance restricting when political signs can be displayed. Generally, the First Amendment does not allow blanket bans on certain types of speech, even for limited durations, especially when it’s based on content.

“There’s no ordinance that can overrule the Constitution,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a lawn sign or a flag – you have the right to express your political beliefs every day of the year, no matter how close it is to Election Day. West Long Branch needs to realize that unless it takes this policy off the books, it’s violating the Constitution.”

New Jersey holds its primary election for the presidential nomination on June 7, which means that West Long Branch’s unconstitutional policy would ban the display of political signs until May 9. Violating the ordinance, according to the town, could carry a $2,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

“Joe Hornick has every right to fly his Trump flags, and West Long Branch has every responsibility to let him,” said attorney Eric D. Sherman, who represents Hornick. “We should not let stand those laws that restrict free speech, especially political speech in an election year. Such laws violate the Constitution and offend our notions of what it means to be an American.”

Hornick has a municipal court appearance that is now scheduled for May 18.

“Year after year, we are informed of unlawful sign restrictions, and we need to threaten suit to get towns to act,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Towns throughout New Jersey need to review their sign ordinances to make sure they don’t include unlawful restrictions. It is time to make our ordinances constitutional again.”

The ACLU-NJ has successfully challenged restrictions on the timing of political signs in the past, including through the representation of a Ron Paul supporter who was prohibited from displaying his sign by the Borough of Hawthorne, in Passaic County, in 2008.

ACLU-NJ Demands Details of NJ Transit Surveillance

April 18, 2016
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ACLU-NJ seeks actual recordings and policies to understand NJ Transit’s audio and visual surveillance of light rail passengers

NEWARK - Concerned about the intrusion into New Jerseyans’ privacy, the ACLU of New Jersey today filed an Open Public Records Act request (PDF) with NJ Transit seeking information about audio and video surveillance of passengers on its three light rail lines that came to light in April. The ACLU-NJ also requested copies of actual recordings of New Jerseyans’ conversations captured by NJ Transit.

“This kind of surveillance is chilling on so many levels – it’s chilling to know that NJ Transit is listening to us without sharing any details, and it chills free speech to know these microphones are always on,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “This kind of intimate surveillance changes the character of our public spaces, and it creates a kind of society that doesn’t reflect who we are as Americans.”

NJ Transit has not shared information with the public about the surveillance. The public does not know whether the audio and video footage are recorded continuously, who has access to the footage, how the recordings are stored, and how long they are maintained.

The ACLU-NJ has requested, among other records:

  • Three discrete, two-hour periods of recordings, one from each light rail line, to understand what the audio can tell us about the surveillance the agency is gathering
  • Policies governing the equipment’s use, management of data, access to footage, and how long it’s maintained
  • Information about the amount of recording that has taken place
  • Invoices about the recording equipment and documentation about its capabilities

“You don’t find a needle by building a much bigger haystack, and that’s what NJ Transit is doing here,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “The public has a right to know how we’re being recorded and how those recordings are being used. With microphones that can pick up even private conversations, that’s an invasion of our privacy on the order of Big Brother. Only it’s not fiction, and it’s happening right now.”

Microphones and video cameras have been installed in trains serving the River Line, which connects Camden and Trenton, and the Newark Line. NJ Transit is finishing installation of the recording equipment on the Hudson-Bergen Line, which runs from Bayonne to North Bergen. Altogether, these light rail lines serve approximately 72,000 riders per weekday.

The posted signs read, “Notice – video and audio systems in use – this vehicle is equipped with onboard video and audio recording systems,” giving passengers no indication of how the equipment is recording them and how the recordings are used.

“Especially if NJ Transit truly believes its surveillance serves the interests of the public, the agency owes the public basic information about how it records riders and what it does with that footage,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “It’s bad enough to violate riders’ privacy, but even worse when it’s being done with this level of secrecy.”

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