Airmont and Discrimination Part 3: Counting Shul Attendees

On September 18, 2017, the Board of Trustees at the Village of Airmont in Rockland county New York held a meeting. The first agenda item was “planning board and zoning board chairmen.” Minutes into the discussion, what appears to be John Cornelius, the Chairman of the Village of Airmont Planning Board, brought up the topic of knowing how many people attend houses of worship. (Mayor Philip Gigante appointed Mr. Cornelius to the Planning Board and he was made chairman too.)

At the board meeting, Mr. Cornelius said “some of these houses of worship come in and say — this is one of the issues I have been dealing with. They [say they] got 51 people coming in for prayer. Well how do we know that? We kind of are taking their word.” The mayor said, “What is supposed to happen is you are supposed to have a code enforcement count” the amount of people going in. When asked by Mr. Cornelius “is that happening?” the mayor lowered his voice almost to a whisper and said, “it should be happening.” Mr. Cornelius then said, “that should happen on a Friday night or a Saturday,” to which the mayor answered “right.”

A minute later, the Chairman bought up an interesting question. Let’s say someone gets permission to have 51 people in their house of worship. How does the village know when/if the number will increase to 61 people due to population growth and thus exceed the legal limit? Mr. Cornelius discusses options and then says, “at a minimum let’s get some counts.” Trustee Anthony Valvo then says that the village can “ascertain from the neighbors” [as to how many people attend] to which the mayor says, “you can use that argument [of deploying neighbors]” and then went on to suggest some other options. Trustee Valvo circled back and said that “you can ask the Code Enforcer to go out to observe” or “you can ask the applicant to obtain affidavits from the neighbors” as to how many people attend the services. “Basic confirmation outside the applicant works,” Mr. Valvo said.

It is unclear why the question of attendee size growing was not raised in the context of retail stores who have more customers during holiday seasons or why the suggestion of holding count was only said on Jewish Houses of Worship or why a neighbor would want to sign an affidavit attesting under penalty of perjury as to how many people attend a prayer service. What is clear from the mayor and others at the meeting is that they were pointing out one community for enforcement and at places of worship no less. The mayor knew he is wandering into bad territory which is why he lowered his voice when he suggested that there should be counts. This is on the backdrop of multiple ordinances that the village changed recently in ways that have an overwhelming if not exclusive impact on members of the Orthodox Jewish community. (You can read Part One and Part Two of our Airmont and Discrimination series.)

Part One of our Airmont Discrimination series can be read here and Part Two can be read here.

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