Federal Judge: Westhampton Beach Village Cannot Block Religious Boundary

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An East End group seeking to establish a religious boundary in western Southampton Town was dealt a considerable victory in federal court on Monday, as the ruling all but guaranteed that the organization could establish one such district within the limits of Westhampton Beach Village.

Still, representatives of the East End Eruv Association (EEEA), who are still embroiled in similar litigation with Quogue Village and Southampton Town, said this week that they have no immediate plans to establish the boundary, called an eruv, in Westhampton Beach, even though they can now legally do so.

Robert Sugarman, the lead attorney representing the EEEA, and whose Manhattan-based firm, Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, has been representing the EEEA pro bono from the onset of the litigation, said Tuesday that his clients still are still investigating their options, while noting that lawsuits filed against Quogue Village and Southampton Town are still pending. The proposed eruv would span both villages and include Quiogue, which is part of Southampton Town.

“Well, it’s a little complicated, because there are three municipalities involved,” Mr. Sugarman said. “The most straightforward of which is Westhampton Beach—there’s nothing in village code prohibiting the use of ‘lechis,’” or boundary markers. In this instance, the markers would be PVC strips a little more than half inch wide, and between 10 and 15 feet long, according to the lawsuit.

“We are exploring what our options are in terms of Westhampton Beach, and we haven’t concluded on that,” he added.

Monday’s decision, handed down by Judge Kathleen Tomlinson in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, stated that Westhampton Beach could not prevent the establishment of an eruv, a nearly invisible boundary that would permit Orthodox Jews to push and carry objects to temple that would otherwise be forbidden on the Sabbath or holy days, within its limits. Specifically, Judge Tomlinson ruled that the village was unable to block the Long Island Power Authority and Verizon from permitting the pro-eruv group to install the lechis on utility poles in order to designate the eruv’s boundaries.

Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller, Deputy Mayor Ralph Urban and Trustee Hank Tucker each acknowledged the ruling but declined to comment on the decision. “I know about it, but that’s it,” Mr. Teller said. “I haven’t seen it, I haven’t read it, so I defer to our attorney.”

Village Attorney Dick Haefeli could not immediately be reached for comment.

The topic has been divisive within Westhampton Beach and Quogue villages, as well as the hamlet of Quiogue, where the EEEA has been championing the cause for the establishment of an eruv since 2008, prompting multiple lawsuits between the involved parties. In the lawsuit settled Monday, Verizon New York and LIPA sued Westhampton Beach, Quogue and Southampton Town for prohibiting the installation of the lechis on their utility poles.

Supporters of the eruv have argued that not allowing its establishment would impede the right of observant Jews to practice their religion freely and openly, while dissenters, including some Jews who belong to the Hampton Synagogue—the Westhampton Beach house of worship that initiated the eruv moment—say the boundary would show that the village is favoring one religion over others.

Per Jewish law, in order for an eruv to be created, it must be approved by local government and its boundaries clearly marked with the lechis.

Because the poles are installed with government approval and within the public right of way, the municipalities argued that posting any sort of sign on the poles would not be permitted, or at least would require prior approval. The utility companies countered by noting that they own the actual poles and should have the authority to approve such a request.

On Monday, Judge Tomlinson ruled in favor of the utility companies, citing state laws that permit Verizon and LIPA to enter into private contracts for the use of their poles, and determining that their contracts with municipalities do not explicitly forbid the installation of signs on the poles. In the past, the companies have allowed signs on their poles promoting events, such as the Westhampton Beach St. Patrick’s Day parade, as well as events outside Southampton Town, including the Plainedge Union Free School District budget vote and the Town of Islip Earth Day Celebration, according to the ruling.

Monday’s decision also brought a minor setback for the EEEA when Judge Tomlinson reaffirmed the villages’ argument that they had the ability to enforce sign ordinances, even on private property, without infringing on freedom of speech in order to ensure health, safety and the aesthetics of their communities. However, because Westhampton Beach has no law or ordinance that would apply to the lechis, Judge Tomlinson ruled that it has no means of stopping LIPA and Verizon from upholding the contractual agreements that they made with EEEA to allow lechis on utility poles.

In contrast, Quogue does have a sign ordinance and its village officials say the lechis would violate it. The Quogue Village Board unanimously denied an application by the EEEA to install lechis in May 2012, but Judge Tomlinson decided this week that “[t]he court does not have the enough information to determine if it may properly address whether the Quogue Village Code applies to the lechis in light of the decision of the Board of Trustees.”

Mr. Sugarman, the lead attorney representing the EEEA, described Monday’s ruling a major success for his clients overall, but added that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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