At a Glance
The Ramapough have successfully settled all claims with Mahwah and the Polo Club, in a way that respects their right to pray and gather on their land, and provides monetary compensation.
Weil Gotshal, Valeria Gheorghiu, Jonathan Wallace
Ramapough Lenape Nation
The Ramapough Lenape Nation are descendants of the original people of the Ramapo Mountains, and many of them reside in the village of Mahwah. The Tribe owns a parcel of land in Mahwah which is a sacred site where the Ramapough have conducted prayer and community cultural assemblies for centuries. The land is zoned as a conservation zone, subject to strict use restrictions under Mahwah municipal code, but in the past this has not interfered with the Tribe’s ability to openly use the land for religious and cultural ceremonies. Indeed, in 2012 the Ramapough were issued a zoning permit for these uses.
In October of 2016, the Ramapough established the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Site on the property, amidst concerns about a fossil fuel pipeline planned for Ramapo Pass. Allies to the Ramapough’s environmental stewardship joined in meetings at the site, in solidarity with the tribe's opposition to the Pipeline. These meetings angered the Polo Club next door, and led to a series of zoning and land use violation fees and fines levied against the Tribe for religious activities and structures on tribal property. Mahwah's enforcement actions have been extremely aggressive, levying fines of thousands of dollars a day for small structures like a stone prayer circle and altar, and informing the Tribe that they may not gather to pray on the land.
Along with fees and fines, the Tribe has experience significant illegal and racist harassment and threats. Tribal members have been arrested on trumped up charges, the land has been vandalized, there have been gunshots at night, and the town has threatened “self-help” should the tribe continue to use their land. The harassment seems to come primarily from the Polo Club.
With the help of lawyer Valeria Gheorghiu, the Tribe filed a federal lawsuit in May 2018 alleging that the Town and the Polo Club are violating their constitutional rights to free exercise, freedom of association, and due process, and violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. CCR and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP joined the legal team in August 2018.