January 24, 2020, Bergen County – Today, a New Jersey court dismissed an attempt by Thomas Powers, a member of the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club homeowners’ association, to dismantle a settlement reached last year between the Ramapough Lenape Nation and the Township of Mahwah regarding the Ramapough’s use of their land. The settlement followed years of harassment, including litigation and heavy fines, by Mahwah and the Hunt & Polo Club against the Ramapough for religious gatherings on land they own, which abuts the Hunt & Polo Club property. The club declined to join the settlement agreement and went to trial. They lost, and the court dismissed the Hunt & Polo Club’s case in its entirety. Mr. Powers then filed a pro se action (on his own behalf, without counsel) seeking to dismantle the settlement between the Ramapough and the township. Following an argument today, the court dismissed Powers’ case in its entirety.
“We are pleased with the ruling, and look forward to better relations with our neighbors at the Hunt & Polo Club,” said a representative of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.
Since 2016, the Township of Mahwah and members of the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club had harassed the Ramapough Lenape Nation in an effort to force the Ramapough to stop religious practice on their own land. Under pressure from the Hunt & Polo Club, Mahwah levied thousands of summonses and over $1 million in fines against the Ramapough for holding religious ceremonies and placing a stone altar and prayer circle on the land. Both Mahwah and the Hunt & Polo Club also filed several lawsuits against the Ramapough, including one in which they sought to prevent the Ramapough from praying and gathering on their land. Following years of this harassment, the Ramapough countersued Mahwah and the Hunt & Polo Club in federal court for racial and religious discrimination. The settlement Mr. Powers sought to unravel—which the Hunt & Polo Club refused to sign, instead opting to go to trial—dropped all fines and settled all civil litigation between the Mahwah and the Ramapough.
“Mr. Powers raised the same issues a court already considered and rejected after a full trial. Filing yet another lawsuit seeking to infringe on the Ramapough’s right to religious practice was pure harassment. The court was right to dismiss the case and prohibit Powers from filing again,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Bertha Justice Fellow Brittany Thomas, who argued today.
The judge ruled from the bench immediately following arguments this afternoon. He called Mr. Powers’ claims that his constitutional rights had been violated “totally specious” and admonished him that the 2019 court ruling against the Hunt & Polo Club barred any “disgruntled Polo Club members” from future litigation.
Before finalizing the settlement agreement that the Hunt & Polo Club refused to join, Mahwah held a public meeting where Hunt & Polo Club residents, including Mr. Powers, spoke and provided comments on the proposed settlement. At that meeting, Mr. Powers raised the issues contained in his subsequent lawsuit, which were also raised—and rejected by the court—at trial. The Hunt & Polo Club did not appeal its loss at trial. In his pro se lawsuit, Powers argued that the settlement violated (unspecified) municipal ordinances and constitutes impermissible zoning, that a potential driveway allowed under the settlement would constitute a safety hazard, and also asked that the “unsafe” driveway be moved to a different road within the neighborhood that he does not live on. Attorneys say that Mr. Powers’ interpretation of the ordinances that he claims were violated would itself violate Constitutional protections for religious liberty.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
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