BROOKLYN (CN) - Verizon says that three Long Island towns must let Orthodox Jews comply with religious observances by tying strips called "lechis" to utility poles, until a court specifically determines otherwise. Lechis create an "eruv," or zone where observant Jews can carry objects or push baby carriages or wheelchairs to synagogue on the Sabbath and on Yom Kippur.
Verizon New York and co-plaintiff Long Island Lighting Co. sued the Village of Westhampton Beach, the Village of Quogue and the Town of Southampton in a federal complaint.
(The Long Island Lighting Company also does business under the name LIPA.)
"Lechis are wooden or plastic strips that do not interfere with the use or operation of utility poles; they have been installed in many locations throughout the country, including on Long Island, and they raise no health or safety concerns," the complaint states.
Verizon and LIPA say they "are not aware of any aesthetic, safety, traffic, fiscal, or other problem that that would be caused by the attachment of lechis to utility poles in Westhampton Beach, Quogue, and Southampton, and are not aware of any compelling governmental interest sufficient to restrict the attachment of such lechis."
So they authorized written agreements with the East End Eruv Association granting permission to place the eruvs, according to the complaint.
"Representatives of defendants have stated publicly that they will not permit the Eruv to be established, that the installation of lechis would violate various local laws, and have threatened to impose fines and/or to take other legal action against Verizon New York and LIPA if they permit the installation of lechis," the complaint states.
The East End Eruv Association claims the towns' threats violate the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs say the issue has sparked "intense local debate and opposition," leading to the formation of groups such as Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv and the Alliance for Separation of Church and State in the Greater Westhampton Area.
Other opponents "expressed a desire to avoid an influx of Orthodox Jewish people into the affected area, including citing fears that the Eruv will lead to the creation of an Orthodox Jewish enclave, that property values will decline, or that the 'character' of the communities will be disturbed," the complaint states.
The utility companies say they are not taking a side on the controversy.
"Defendants' threats and actions have created a situation in which the obligations and rights of Verizon New York and LIPA are uncertain and the resolution of which turns, in part, on significant questions of federal constitutional and statutory law. ... No matter which party or parties are right, Verizon New York and LIPA require clarification of the applicability and enforceability of the cited local laws and of Verizon New York's and LIP A's associated rights and obligations," the complaint states.
The companies say the towns cannot enforce the regulations barring the creation of eruvs until the courts address the matter. "That controversy is ripe and appropriate for resolution by this Court," the complaint states.
Verizon and LIPA ask that the towns be barred from enforcing laws restricting the construction of eruvs, unless the court specifically allows the regulations.
Verizon and LIPA are represented by Michael Wiles of Debevoise & Plimpton.
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