TheZone, an Orthodox summer camp in Schoharie County near Albany, NY, is taking the county to federal court for targeting them over their religious views.
TheZone runs two Jewish separate sleepaway camps for its boys and girls divisions in the upper Catskill region. Oorah, Inc., the owner of TheZone camps, is suing Schoharie County, NY and Amy Gildmeister, the county’s health commissioner, in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York. The lawsuit is focused on discrimination the camp organizers say they faced last summer in the way they were being treated by local officials compared to other groups.
Last spring, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down sleepaway summer camps in the state. However, the Schoharie Jewish camp kept its doors open, as did other similar Orthodox facilities, by temporarily becoming a facility that offered family residences catering for religious retreats.
But county inspectors who visited the site reported safety violations of masks and social distancing regulations and also suggested the families on the site’s grounds did not remain separated from one another. This ended with the county fining the owners about $60,000 for health violations.
The lawsuit alleges that:
Over the past decade, Oorah has time and again been subjected to official action discriminating against it based on its Orthodox Jewish character by the Defendants. The goal of these arbitrary and discriminatory actions has been to thwart the operation of Oorah’s religious programs and to deter Oorah’s staff, volunteers, and participants from the practice of their Jewish faith.
Oorah has repeatedly been forced to obtain relief against Schoharie County in the state courts to allow it to operate its religious facilities. This hostility rose to a crescendo in 2020, when Defendants Schoharie County and Amy Gildemeister, the County’s Director of Public Health, exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down Oorah’s operations completely in an illegal, premeditated, arbitrary, and discriminatory manner.
Based on the barest unproven allegations of COVID-19 regulation and code violations (and in the absence of any confirmed case of COVID-19 at either Oorah facility), the Defendants, or either of them, engaged in repeated inspections of the properties, chased young Jewish children around the camps making them cry, issued cease and desist orders, demanded fines of $65,000, and “placarded” the camps, closing them down for family and Holy Day retreats.
In undertaking all of the foregoing actions, the Defendants violated various due process requirements under New York law before such actions can be taken, including not holding regulatorily required hearings, repeatedly failing to re-inspect the properties in accordance with the relevant regulations despite repeated follow-up visits, and requests for same, neglecting to mention the requirement of a hearing in the cease and desist orders, and illegally revoking Oorah’s Temporary Residence permits without providing an opportunity for the regulatorily required hearing and fundamental due process.
In spite of a New York State court holding that the County has violated Oorah’s rights and enjoining enforcement of the County’s orders, the County has refused to relent and has now improperly refused to process Oorah’s permits necessary to operate in 2021 until “all hearings have been concluded and fines have been paid for 2020 violations.”
The Defendants’ campaign against Oorah also stands in stark contrast to their treatment of other local entities, including SUNY-Cobleskill, with which they worked together to correct violations instead of shutting its doors, other businesses about which Defendant Gildemeister stated that “she hoped law enforcement would serve as peacemakers in such circumstances, relaying the need for safety measures without having to be punitive,” and even the County itself, as meetings of the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors and its COVID-19 task force permitted attendees to be maskless, including at least one such meeting attended by Defendant Gildemeister. With respect to Oorah, however, Defendant Gildemeister reportedly stated: “We’ve been trying to shut them down for weeks.”
These actions targeted against Oorah on the basis of its Orthodox Jewish nature have resulted in Oorah being unable to celebrate religious holidays or provide religious services and retreats for its participants, prevented it from using its facilities for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, caused it great financial harm and has now shut the facilities down indefinitely without any hearing or due process.
The Defendants’ biased and arbitrary actions against Oorah over the past year are just the latest incidents in a years-long pattern of abuse of authority discrimination against Oorah on the part of the Defendants and their various public officials.
Plaintiff has suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable harm based on the Defendants’ actions. By depriving the Plaintiff and its participants of critical religious worship.
Oorah’s boys camp stands on the grounds of the former Scotch Valley ski center. According to the suit, in 2008, the local “Save Scotch Valley” group tried to rezone the property so Oorah won’t be able to run its camp there, “to ensure that the people in Jefferson would not ‘end up like the unfortunate residents of Gilboa.’”
According to transcripts of the group’s meetings, what happened in Gilboa was that the Orthodox visitors to the camp are bringing their own kosher food rather than buying it locally. Also, according to court records, local officials were considering hanging outside the camp a “big sign up there with a swastika,” or inviting “skinheads” to pay the Oorah folks a visit.
A fine cross-cultural experience was had by all…