Voting Rights Groups Call for Election Day Registration

October 5, 2015
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ACLU-NJ, Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, and New Jersey Appleseed File Appellate Brief

NEWARK -- The Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, New Jersey Appleseed, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a brief today (PDF) explaining that New Jersey’s current rule of cutting off voter registration 21 days before an election imposes an undue and unnecessary burden on too many voters, resulting in a denial of the right to vote.

“Each election cycle, thousands of voters are unnecessarily disenfranchised,” said Frank Askin, director of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic. “States with Election Day voter registration have higher turnout, and given modern technology and the ease with which states can verify voter information, their registration processes continue to function smoothly.”

The ACLU-NJ, Rutgers CRC, and New Jersey Appleseed, working on behalf of Rutgers students and other affected plaintiffs, filed the brief in the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

The state’s strict registration regulations disproportionately deny the right to vote to young adults, who move more frequently than others. But it also denies the right to vote to persons who become newly naturalized citizens within 21 days of an election, people who believed they were properly registered (included those whose registration was lost by the government before it was put into the system), and those who finish terms of incarceration within 21 days of an election. Further, the current regulations are incompatible with modern political campaigning, which targets voters most heavily in the week before an election, when voter interest peaks.

“Advances in technology and New Jersey’s modern election machinery have made a 21-day deadline before an election unnecessary and obsolete, as the experience in other states shows,” stated ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas.

New Jersey’s electronic voter databases, modernized in accordance with the Help America Vote Act, can rapidly verify voter information and identity. Further, New Jersey already uses provisional ballots (provided to voters who appear at the polls but who are not found in the voter rolls) as registration for future elections. The voter simply has to be verified as a legitimate voter, which happens quickly given the statewide verification system. Plaintiffs explain that those provisional ballots therefore can easily be – and should be - counted in the election in which it was cast.

“After being given numerous opportunities, the state failed to prove any legitimate, much less compelling, interest to justify a burden that results in the loss of the right to vote for thousands of New Jerseyans every year,” said Renée Steinhagen of New Jersey Appleseed. “It’s time for New Jersey to end this unnecessary disenfranchisement of voters given the State’s current electronic verification process and join the many states that allow Election Day registration.”

This is the second time the case is before the appellate court. After a trial court erroneously dismissed the case in 2014, an appellate panel found that the court had failed to explain the state’s interest in an early registration deadline, and whether that outweighed the importance of upholding the right to vote. The previous decision in the trial court contained factual errors and misapplications of the law.

The case is captioned Rutgers University Student Assembly v. Middlesex County Board of Elections.

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Family, Community Demand Investigation in Leak of Trenton Teen's Juvenile History

September 9, 2015
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TRENTON – The mother of a Trenton teenager shot by police a month ago will be joined by the United Mercer Interfaith Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in calling for an investigation into the leaking of her son’s prior juvenile justice history.

Reports have appeared in the media detailing encounters by law enforcement with Radazz Hearns, 14, who survived seven gunshots to his legs and back. An Aug. 27 Trentonian article attributed information it published about the teenager's record to police reports released “under state sunshine laws.”

State law precludes the release of juvenile justice history, saying those records “shall be strictly safeguarded from public inspections.”

In letters (PDF) to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, and Mercer County Acting Prosecutor Angelo Onofri, Ms. Jackson and the groups asked for investigations into the leak. “Because the information provided to the Trentonian is exclusively under the control of law enforcement agencies, we request that you conduct an investigation into New Jersey law enforcement agencies to determine who provided the information to the press,” their letter to Fishman said.

Four other letters (PDF) were sent to the heads of the law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction – New Jersey State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes, Mercer County Sheriff John Kemler, Hopewell Township Police Chief Lance Maloney, and Trenton Police Director Ernest Parrey – asking for internal investigations of their departments, and demanding accountability for making protected records public.

“My son has been the target of a smear campaign using private information about encounters with authorities that could have only come from police in order to discredit him and justify the actions of the officers who shot him,” said Slimes Jackson, Radazz Hearns’ mother.

Hearns was unarmed when police approached him the night of Aug. 7, according to his lawyer, Samuel Anyan, Jr. But a release from the Office of the Attorney General said Hearns pointed a handgun at police before turning to flee as an explanation for why officers opened fire. A gun was recovered at the scene 12 hours after the incident. Police reports said an emergency vehicle parked on top of the weapon, which delayed recovery. Hearns, who was hospitalized for 10 days, has been charged with aggravated assault.

“The community has been kept in the dark all along about this investigation and the officers who were involved in the shooting. It is critical that the police are transparent and impartial in their actions – not secretly supplying reporters with prejudicial details of police interactions with juveniles to create a negative narrative,” said Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, United Mercer Interfaith Organization.

The officers involved in the shooting, reportedly from the New Jersey State Police and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, have not been named.

Meanwhile, media reports citing sources who asked not to be identified have provided detailed accounts of Hearns’ juvenile record, including information about the school he attends.

“The media enjoy First Amendment protections in the reporting of information, but there is no doubt releasing the prior juvenile justice history of a teenage suspect by law enforcement is not just inappropriate but unlawful,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney.

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Students Sue to Force NJDOE to Adopt New Graduation Rules

September 1, 2015
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Newark – On September 1, several New Jersey students and their families filed a lawsuit (PDF) challenging the NJ Department of Education’s (NJDOE) attempt to impose new exams and other fee-based tests as requirements for high school graduation without adopting new regulations as required by law.

The lawsuit, T.B., et al. v. NJ Department of Education, contends that NJDOE failed to follow existing regulations or propose new ones under the NJ Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when Commissioner of Education David Hespe announced that new graduation requirements would apply to this September’s incoming senior class.

The students and families filing the lawsuit are represented by the Education Law Center (ELC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ (ACLU-NJ).

Last fall, Commissioner Hespe sent a memo (PDF) to districts and charter schools stating that high school students would no longer have to pass the State’s existing graduation tests, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), even though NJDOE regulations require use of those tests. The Commissioner’s memo notified districts that students must instead pass at least two of the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams, given for the first time last spring. Hespe said that “schools and districts can expect to be notified of the [PARCC] 'cut scores' for use in New Jersey graduation determinations in the Fall of 2015.” Students who don’t pass PARCC must attain certain scores on the SAT, ACT or other tests, or successfully complete an undefined “portfolio appeals” process.

The lawsuit seeks to halt using PARCC, SAT and other tests as graduation requirements until NJDOE formally proposes and adopts new regulations through the APA process. The APA requires NJDOE to publish new rules in detail and give the public the opportunity to comment.

“This is a matter of basic fairness to students and families,” said Linda Reid, the grandmother of a Paterson 10th grader. “Changes in high school graduation requirements require the adoption of new regulations by the State Board of Education, an opportunity for public comment about those regulations, and due notice for the parents and students who will be affected. None of that happened.”

Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of the proposed policies, especially on at-risk students, English language learners (ELL), students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. For example, the elimination of the AHSA, the alternative assessment, will close a pathway to graduation used by as many as 10,000 students annually, including more than half of all ELL graduates. The use of fee-based commercial tests, including the SAT and ACT, as high school graduation exams also raises questions about equal access and the alignment of these tests with state standards. In addition, expanded use of the “appeals” process could place a significant new burden on high school guidance departments, especially in high poverty districts.

“There has been so much confusion and controversy about New Jersey tests and standards over the past year that students and parents don’t know what’s going on,” said Newark high school senior Tanasia Brown, one of the petitioners. “A lot of us have received no information or confusing information about the new graduation policies and about whether the PARCC tests ‘count.’”

“Students and families are supposed to receive information about high school graduation requirements when they enter 9th grade,” she added. “Changing requirements for students going into their junior or senior year is not fair or reasonable.”

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Immigration Status: Do Hightstown Checks Go Too Far?

August 31, 2015
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Hightstown Mayor Lawrence Quattrone (PDF) asking him to clarify Hightstown Police Department policy in light of remarks attributed to him in a Times of Trenton news story with the headline: Hightstown mayor: We are not a ‘sanctuary city.’

The story quoted the mayor saying, “If you get stopped for anything, [Hightstown police] will check your status … If you have wants or warrants against you, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, Latino, Greek, or Italian, your status will be checked and if there’s any problem, you will be turned over.”

A directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General in 2007 instructs law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status only when arrested for indictable offenses or DUI offenses. A policy of routinely checking the immigration status of people stopped by police would be outside of that directive and raise serious civil rights concerns.

“Unnecessarily involving your officers in immigration enforcement undermines the public safety, rather than strengthening it,” the letter said.

The letter asks Quattrone to publicly clarify his statements; to make clear that Hightstown Police Department policies go no further in questioning individuals’ immigration status than is required by law; and to provide documentation of the department’s policies for dealing with immigrants or people thought to be immigrants.

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ACLU-NJ Demands Release of Officer Names in Shooting of Trenton Teen

August 20, 2015
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Letter Urges Attorney General to Provide Greater Details about the Shooting to the Family of Radazz Hearns, Trenton Community

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today sent a letter (PDF) to state Acting Attorney General John Hoffman urging the release of further information about the shooting of 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, including the names of the state trooper and Mercer County sheriff’s officer who were involved in the shooting in Trenton on August 7.

Hearns, who was shot seven times but survived the shooting, has been charged with aggravated assault; unlawful possession of a handgun; and possession of a defaced firearm. The unnamed police officers contend Hearns had a handgun, according to the Attorney General’s office. Witnesses dispute that account and say Hearns was unarmed and ran away from the officers.

Law enforcement officials have been less than forthcoming about further details of the shooting.

“Nearly two weeks after the incident, your office has provided scant information about the shooting to Radazz's family and the broader Trenton community,” said the letter signed by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer, Legal Director Edward Barocas, and Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.

“In a matter such as this, the growing number of unanswered questions and absence of transparency can serve to exacerbate any distrust and division between community members and law enforcement. Absent a specific, particularized, and credible threat to the safety of the officers or their families, parents should not be left to wonder who shot their child.”

The letter sites recognized best practices for police departments, including guidelines for releasing the names of the officers involved in a shooting within hours of the shooting.

The ACLU-NJ will continue to be in touch with community members and monitor events as the case proceeds.

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NJ Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition Applauds Reform Bill Signed into Law

August 17, 2015
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TRENTON -- Governor Christie’s signature of S2003/A4299 will implement significant and much needed reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. The bill, sponsored by Senators Nellie Pou and Raymond Lesniak, and Assembly Members Shavonda Sumter, Charles Mainor, Benjie Wimberly, and Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, recognizes the critical need for age-appropriate treatment and access to rehabilitation for juveniles who intersect with the criminal justice system. The new law:

“These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults”

  • Raises the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult from 14 to 15, narrows the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, and amends the standard governing such decisions to reflect the continuing maturation of young people through their mid-twenties;
  • Requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison; and
  • Eliminates the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, and places time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.

The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition is pursuing system-wide reforms of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, including promoting alternatives to incarceration for youth and improving conditions of confinement for those who are incarcerated. Members of the Coalition’s Steering Committee include Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden and Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic in Newark.

Through legislative advocacy on this bill, as well as executive advocacy and litigation, the Coalition has sought to reform the process and circumstances under which youth may be placed in an adult prison, and to eliminate the practice of solitary confinement of juveniles. The Coalition applauds the extraordinary leadership of Senator Pou, who more than two years ago, began bringing together advocates (including members of the Coalition), retired judges, county prosecutors, the Attorney General's Office, and other stakeholders to discuss New Jersey’s juvenile justice system and how to improve it through these substantial reforms.

“The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system just signed into law will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the ‘justice’ in our juvenile justice system a reality,” says Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

“New Jersey will become the twenty-first state to prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement by either law or practice, in line with a growing national trend. This is a first and significant step towards reducing the risk of serious harm to juveniles in secure facilities, but we still have a long way to go,” explains Natalie Kraner, Pro Bono Counsel at Lowenstein Sandler. “The new law’s data collection requirement is critical because it will afford transparency to the Juvenile Justice Commission’s continued use of solitary confinement and protect against an overbroad and prolonged use of non-punitive solitary confinement,” adds Kraner.

“Serving time in an adult facility has enormous and lifelong consequences,” remarks Laura Cohen, Director, Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law. In another important change, youth who have been waived for adult prosecution presumptively will be held in local juvenile detention centers, rather than county jails, while awaiting trial; similarly, any young person who is sentenced to a term of incarceration will be committed to the state's Juvenile Justice Commission until the age of 21 and may remain there beyond that time at the discretion of the Commission. “These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults,” explains Cohen.

“While we agree that juveniles should be held accountable for their actions, we must treat juveniles who commit crimes differently than adults. These youth will return to their communities and we must equip them with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults,” says Mary Cogan, Assistant Director, Advocates for Children of NJ.

“This legislation represents a much-needed paradigm shift in how New Jersey addresses juvenile delinquency issues," adds LaShawn Warren, Vice President and General Counsel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. "It moves the state closer to a rehabilitative model that appropriately factors in developmental considerations of youth and ensures progress toward racial fairness in the state juvenile justice system.”

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ACLU-NJ Cheers Signing of S2003, Juvenile Justice Reform Legislation

August 10, 2015
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Juvenile Justice

The following is attributable to Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey. The ACLU of New Jersey is a member of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition.

The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system signed into law today will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. Solitary confinement of juveniles is a practice that has no place in our state and should only be used as a very last resort. Collecting data on the use of solitary confinement and the practice of trying children as adults will only serve to improve our juvenile justice system. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the "justice" in our juvenile justice system a reality. The ACLU of NJ thanks Senator Pou, Assemblywoman Sumter for their leadership, and Governor Christie for signing this legislation into law today.

Image: © Richard Ross,

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ACLU-NJ Executive Director Testifies at U.S. Senate Hearing

August 4, 2015
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NEWARK – ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Oversight in Washington, DC, this morning from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Ofer’s testimony (PDF) will focus on the over-use of solitary confinement in federal and state prisons, reforms that federal prisons may implement to reduce their incarcerated populations, as well as the significant and successful effort going on in New Jersey to reduce prison populations.

Ofer will be part of a panel of witnesses that includes Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; the Honorable Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General of the Department of Justice; Jerome Dillard, Reentry Coordinator for Dane County, Wis.; and Piper Kerman, author of the best-selling book, Orange is the New Black. Ofer will testify at the invitation of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

The panel is expected to deliver first-hand accounts of the challenges facing the federal prison system as part of the hearing on oversight of the Bureau of Prisons.

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Issue: Prisons

ACLU-NJ Voices Concern on Body Camera Directive for Police

July 28, 2015
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Law Enforcement Body Cameras

NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.

The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive (PDF) to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.

Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:

“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.

“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.

“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.

“We have real concerns about several specific, key points:

  • Many important police interactions with civilians will not be recorded, including routine street encounters.
  • Public access to the recordings is too restrictive. For example, the subject of a recording isn’t guaranteed access to the recording.
  • Recordings may be kept indefinitely. That raises concerns about privacy, as well as First Amendment protections.”

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NJ is Wrong in Defending Taxpayer Grants to Yeshiva, Seminary

July 21, 2015
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Nearly $11 million for Construction Awarded to Two Schools Raises Concern About Discrimination, Use of Public Funds to Support Religious Mission

NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State submitted written arguments (PDF) challenging New Jersey’s rationale for awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated to religious training and instruction.

NJ Attorney General John Hoffman defended the state grants to the Lakewood Yeshiva Beth Medrash Gohova and the Princeton Theological Seminary in a brief dated June 10, 2015, in the lawsuit ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks. Hoffman argued that the grants are for academic purposes – the construction of classrooms, a library and other capital improvements – not furtherance of religious teachings and, therefore, do not violate the state Constitution or the Law Against Discrimination.

“The Constitution does not allow the State to subsidize the training of clergy or other religious instruction, nor does it allow subsidizing discriminatory institutions. The proposed grants would do exactly these things,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU-NJ.

Responding to the state’s defense, groups filed a brief characterizing the State’s arguments as “unavailing” and an attempt to undermine a 1978 NJ Supreme Court ruling that clearly bars the use of public funds for the maintenance or support of religious groups. The brief asks the state Appellate Court to recognize the violations of the Constitution and bar the state from awarding the tax-funded grants to the schools.

“Taxpayers must not be forced to fund divinity schools," said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The court should strike down these grants.”

On April 29, 2013, following a competitive application process, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects to be funded with the proceeds from a voter-approved bond sale. The ACLU of NJ, ACLU and Americans United, went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state Constitution and the Law Against Discrimination.

“These grants flout important safeguards in the state Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite discrimination or the religious training of clergy.”


Even though the New Jersey Constitution forbids taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship, the state awarded $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, to build a new library and academic center. The state also awarded $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary for expansion and construction of classroom and study space.

Courses of study at both of these schools prepare students to serve as religious leaders or religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies each school as a “theological institution.” The Yeshiva does not admit women and its faculty is entirely male and Jewish. The seminary requires degree students to be Christian.


The ACLU-NJ, ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state constitution and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In their brief, the plaintiffs cited three violations of the state Constitution, which prohibits using taxpayer funds:

  • for the maintenance of any religion or ministry;
  • to subsidize or build facilities at which religious services or instruction will take place;
  • if such funding does not serve a public purpose.

Further, the brief cites the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which prohibits any place of public accommodation from discriminating based on religion or sex.

Because governmental entities are public accommodations subject to the LAD, they are prohibited from providing special benefits to organizations that discriminate based on religion or sex. The proposed grants constitute special benefits to two institutions that do exactly that. The Seminary has a policy of allowing only Christians to become degree students, faculty, or board members. While it has no formal policy barring women or non-Jews, the Yeshiva’s entire faculty is Jewish and male and the student body is all male and believed to be all-Jewish.

The State’s Response

Hoffman’s response argued that the 176 grants included awards to 15 private institutions and that the stated public benefit -- to improve the quality and capacity of higher education in New Jersey -- is not measured by each grant but rather by the entirety of the program. The state also said the grants were for the benefit of education not religious instruction, because the assistance is meant for classrooms, libraries and other academic functions.

Further, the State argued that schools with religious affiliations are not barred from taxpayer assistance, such as police and fire services, and that the plaintiffs’ assertion that the grants are violations is an overly broad interpretation of the state Constitution and the NJ Supreme Court’s findings in the landmark case, Resnick v. East Brunswick Township Board of Education.

Finally, the state argued in its written brief, “Religious institutions are expressly exempt from the LAD,” and that the State should not be barred from giving funds or other special benefits to organizations that are permitted to discriminate because they are exempt from the law.

The Plaintiffs’ Reply

Despite the state’s claim that the grants were plentiful and wide-reaching, the awards were made competitively, at the discretion of the State Secretary of Higher Education, and nearly a third of the applications for funding were rejected.

While the NJ Constitution does not preclude the State from providing general services such as fire and police protection to religious organizations, it does foreclose direct “out-of-pocket” funding for sectarian religious instruction and the training of clergy.

While religious institutions may be exempt from the LAD and therefore permitted to engage in discrimination, a place of public accommodation covered by the law (including the NJ government) is not permitted to indirectly promote or support such discrimination by providing special benefits to such discriminatory groups. Here, the State is providing the two institutions a total of more than $10 million in discretionary taxpayer funds.

Oral argument in the case has not yet been scheduled.

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