September 24, 2018, Mahwah, NJ – On Friday, September 21, the Ramapough Lenape Nation Tribe filed an amended complaint against the township of Mahwah, NJ, and a local homeowner’s association, for acts of racial and religious discrimination against the Ramapough Tribe. The case centers around the tribe’s rights to use its ancestral land, alleging that Mahwah, township representatives, and the Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club have coordinated to harass the tribe and deprive them of their constitutional and civil rights, out of religious animus, xenophobia, fear, and a desire to increase property values. The Tribe is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, and, with support from the National Lawyers Guild NYC Chapter, attorney Valeria Gheorghiu, who filed the original action.
“With horrifying dismay, I find myself again having to come forward to defend my people, the Ramapough Lenape—the original people of this land,” said Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Tribe. “We are once again confronted by systemic racism, wrapped in the old Jim Crow mantra of ‘we treat them just like anyone else.’ Stealing tribal land through the manipulation of zoning should be a crime, and I ask the elected officials to rise to the ethical standards that your position demands.”
According to the lawsuit, since 2016, Mahwah Township has levied a series of zoning and land use violation fees against the Ramapough, to punish the Tribe for its religious structures and prayer assemblies held on their ceremonial land. The Township also revoked—without notice, hearing, or cause—a permit to use the land for religious purposes, which had been in place for several years.
The Township has issued over 1,200 individual summonses since April 24th, retroactive to March 29, 2018, demanding up to nearly $1.5 million in fines. The summons allege that tipis, tents, a sweat lodge made of small branches, trash cans, and even bicycles are not permitted on Ramapough private land without a zoning permit or zoning plan. The Township has demanded that the Ramapough remove a stone altar and a prayer circle of logs with masks, as well as attempted to prohibit prayer without any structures as “religious use.” The lawsuit alleges that by using the excessive fines and zoning violations, the Township and the neighboring Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club’s collective intent is to push the Tribe off what is valuable real estate.
“The Constitutional guarantee of religious liberty ensures that a hostile and discriminatory municipality cannot simply issue hundreds of minor zoning infractions in order to prevent the Tribe from the religious use of their ancestral land, no matter how much Mahwah and the Polo Club would like to see them gone,” said Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This lawsuit shows they will fight to preserve their heritage and their land. Racism cannot be dressed up in a municipal code.”
The lawsuit documents that the Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club has worked closely with the township in attempting to push the Tribe off their land through patterns of harassment, including making false criminal complaints against tribe members. Members of the Polo Club have also shouted racist comments during Ramapough religious ceremonies. (Comments by Polo Club members directed at the tribe and recounted in the lawsuit include, “Nobody prays with stones and fire.” and “Fuck you, Mountain N*****s.”) The Ramapough Tribe has also endured significant racist harassment and threats. Tribal members have been arrested on trumped up charges, their land has been vandalized, and gunshots have been fired near their homes in the middle of the night.
“Like so many indigenous peoples of this continent, the Ramapough have endured and persevered through centuries of attacks on their cultural heritage and land rights, and the pattern of harassment and discriminatory treatment by Mahwah Township and the Polo Club is just a continuation of that unjust legacy,” said Valeria Gheorghiu, co-counsel for the Ramapough Lenape Nation. “Ramapough are bravely fighting to protect religious prayers, for the Ramapo River and for healthy land and water for everyone, including Mahwah Township and the Polo Club. These defendants must stop their illegal course of conduct and learn to honor and recognize the tribe’s right to preserve and protect its land, water and traditions.”
Attorneys say that laws have been used in a targeted and extremely restrictive fashion against the Ramapough, and in contrast to the way other groups and individuals have been treated, evidencing religious and racial discrimination in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as rights protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, The Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.