MAHWAH — In separate but related rulings issued Monday, state and federal agencies have taken actions favoring the Ramapough Lenape Nation based in the township.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” Monday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey supporting a lawsuit by the Ramapough Mountain Indians saying the township violated the tribe’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 by “interfering with religious assembly on property the tribe owns in the township.”
It said Mahwah “has imposed a substantial burden on the Ramapoughs’ religious exercise without adequate justification and has not treated its use of the land equally with nonreligious uses of the land.”
The township has been fighting installation of tepees, prayer poles and other religious objects on a 13.9-acre site owned by the Ramapough nation near Ramapo College.
Also on Monday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a settlement with the Ramapough Lenape Nation acknowledging that it is one of two New Jersey tribes that have been officially recognized as American Indian tribes in the state since 1980. The recognition is “intended to qualify the tribes for all federal and state benefits and services for which state-recognized tribes are eligible.”
“It is absolutely wonderful that New Jersey decided to do the right thing and take the high road,” said Ramapough Chief Dwaine Perry. “For ethics, morals, kindness and understanding.”
The Ramapoughs filed a suit against Mahwah last May claiming that the township had “burdened their religious exercise by rescinding a zoning permit that authorized religious worship” on their property, limited the number of people permitted on the property for religious gatherings, and demanded the removal of structures such as tepees and prayer poles “central to the Ramapoughs’ worship.”
The complaint was amended last September making claims under the Religious Land Use act. The Justice Department’s statement of interest says the claims under that act alleging that the township’s conduct has “significantly chilled” the Ramapoughs’ use of the land for religious purposes “are ripe for consideration by the court.”
The Department of Justice formed a Religious Liberty Task Force last July to coordinate its work on religious liberty litigation.
Mahwah Mayor John Roth declined to comment.
The state’s agreements are with two tribes: the Powhatan Renape Nation in southern New Jersey and the Ramapough Lenape Nation based in Mahwah.
The affirming of the two tribes as American Indians makes them eligible for federal and state services and benefits to which state-recognized tribes are entitled. Any past denials of recognition are being withdrawn.
The settlement is intended to extend to the two tribes the rights granted to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation last November, primarily that they be allowed to label and sell traditional arts and crafts as “American Indian-made.” The Nanticoke also claimed that the lack of recognition caused it to lose federal grants, scholarships and contracts obtained by tribally owned businesses.
The settlement specifically “does not provide the tribes with federal casino gaming rights.”
State and federal agencies will be notified of the recognition status for the two tribes in the next month.