Lawsuit filed in Hamptons religious symbol fight

A long-simmering controversy over whether Orthodox Jews can place a religious symbol on utility poles in a Hamptons community on eastern Long Island appears headed to court.

A long-simmering controversy over whether Orthodox Jews can place a religious symbol on utility poles in a Hamptons community on eastern Long Island appears headed to court.

Attorneys for the East End Eruv Association have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming officials in the town of Southampton and villages of Westhampton Beach and Quogue are intentionally infringing on their religious freedom by not allowing the placement of an "eruv."

The eruv consists of small wooden strips called "lechis," which are often placed on utility poles to create an invisible boundary that allows observant Jews within the eruv to perform manual labor, including pushing and carrying objects such as strollers and wheelchairs on the Sabbath or religious holidays like Yom Kippur.

"Our efforts for rational discussion and fair treatment have been met with harsh words and obvious discrimination," Marvin Tenzer, EEEA's president, said in a statement. "These villages and town are violating our constitutional and civil rights by engaging in an active campaign to obstruct our ability to practice our religion."

Eruvs have been placed in many communities — there's one around the White House and another in Manhattan that runs from river-to river. But when the issue first surfaced in the Hamptons in 2008, local residents expressed concerns that allowing the eruv would lead to an influx of Orthodox Jews.

Some of the most vocal opposition at the time came from a group called "Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv."

Despite then-Gov. David Paterson's appeal for religious tolerance, the controversy became so heated that Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hamptons Synagogue eventually withdrew his application to the Westhampton Beach Village Board seeking approval of the eruv. The eruv would have extended beyond the boundaries of the village into nearby Quogue and unincorporated areas in the town of Southampton.

Later, supporters formed the East End Eruv Association and turned their focus toward the local electric and telephone companies, seeking permission to place the lechis on their utility poles. Both Verizon and the Long Island Power Authority gave tacit approval for the eruv, but noted the local municipalities might be the ultimate arbiters over whether their placement would be permitted.

Spokespeople for LIPA and Verizon confirmed that permission was granted, but declined to comment further on the controversy. LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the company would await a court ruling on the matter.

The EEEA contends, however, that municipal sanctioning is not necessary and requiring such approval violates their religious rights. Their lawsuit seeks to stop all efforts to prevent the creation of the eruv as well as unspecified damages and legal fees.

The mayors of Westhampton Beach and Quogue, as well as the Southampton town attorney, all declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday. The municipalities contend they have local laws banning people from placing signs on utility poles, but the EEEA's lawsuit contends signs for yard sales and other announcements have appeared on poles with impunity.

"Their thinly veiled arguments do not stand up to the slightest scrutiny and we are confident that they will not hold up to judicial review," said attorney Robert Sugarman. He represented a group of Orthodox Jews in Tenafly, N.J., that won a six-year battle in 2006 to establish an eruv.

A federal judge ruled the New Jersey borough had the right to ban the eruv, but an appeals court disagreed, saying the borough had selectively enforced the ban on utility pole attachments. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

There are 2,000 year-round residents of Westhampton Beach, a community 75 miles east of Manhattan, but the population grows to ten times that number in the summer.

Arnold Sheiffer, a semiretired advertising executive who organized Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv, did not immediately return inquiries for comment, but he has previously said an eruv would exacerbate divisions within the community.

"We've always lived in peace and harmony," Sheiffer told The Associated Press in 2008. "The truth is I didn't know if people were Jewish or not. And the truth is I didn't really care. And it was nice. Now we have this thing, this eruv, that would create divisions."

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