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Jun 25, 2014 1:03 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village Has Spent $75,000 In Attrorney Fees Fighting Eruv

Jun 25, 2014 1:13 PM

Since 2011, the Village of Westhampton Beach has spent more than $75,000 in legal fees fighting the proposed establishment of a religious boundary that would encompass most of the municipality.

Over that time, the village, listed as co-defendants in two separate lawsuits, has been entangled in a legal battle with the East End Eruv Association (EEEA), a not-for-profit organization made up of Southampton Town residents who are seeking to establish a symbolic religious zone, known as an eruv, in Westhampton Beach, Quogue and Quiogue.

While inside the eruv, the borders of which would be designated by markers known as “lechis,” Orthodox Jews would be able to do otherwise prohibited acts, such as pushing strollers or carrying keys, on the Sabbath and other holy days.

Since 2008, the EEEA has be trying to establish the eruv by affixing the lechis—in this case, strips of PVC pipe a little more than a half inch thick, and between 10 and 15 feet long—to utility poles throughout Westhampton Beach and Quogue villages, as well as the unincorporated portion of Southampton Town known as Quiogue.

However, the governing bodies behind both villages and the town have pushed back against the eruv, fearing that allowing such a district would be viewed as religious favoritism. In response, the EEEA has sued all three.

Westhampton Beach has paid Riverhead-based lawyer Anthony Tohill $225 per hour, totaling $75,656.24 to date, to represent them in the two lawsuits, one against the EEEA and the other against Verizon New York and the Long Island Power Authority, both of which have signed licensing agreements allowing the EEEA to affix lechis on their utility poles.

A ruling handed down by Judge Kathleen Tomlinson last week in U.S. District Court in Central Islip determined that although Quogue has an ordinance prohibiting signs from being posted in public view, Westhampton Beach has no such law and therefore cannot prevent the utility companies from licensing the use of their poles, essentially drawing one of the lawsuits to a close, pending an appeal.

The village, however, likely will have to sink more money into the lawsuit with the EEEA. That litigation disputes both villages’ claims that allowing an eruv would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits governing bodies from giving one religion preferential treatment over another. On the flip side, the EEEA has maintained that not allowing the eruv would inhibit its right to religious freedom.

Mr. Tohill did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this article.

Robert Sugarman, whose Manhattan-based firm, Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, has been representing the EEEA pro bono since 2011, said as soon as LIPA and Verizon give the OK—even if that happens before the other lawsuit is decided—the EEEA will move swiftly to install lechis on approximately 20 utility poles throughout Westhampton Beach.

“My impression is that all that has to be done is put up these 5/8-inch strips on approximately 20 poles in the village,” Mr. Sugarman said. “And my understanding is that could happen very quickly.”

But PSEG spokesman Jeffrey Weir, whose company now oversees LIPA’s poles, said the utility will not sign off on the lechis until the other lawsuit between Westhampton Beach and the EEEA is settled. “PSEG Long Island will proceed in accordance with the magistrate’s order related to the license agreement for the Village of Westhampton Beach and will otherwise await the outcome of the rest of the case,” Mr. Weir said.

As part of the licensing agreement between the EEEA and the utility companies, in exchange for allowing the EEEA to hang the lechis, the group would pay a licensing fee, Mr. Sugarman said, although he could not recall how much he clients would have to pay or how frequently.

Mr. Sugarman also noted that although LIPA and Verizon had their own legal representation for their lawsuit against Westhampton Beach, Quogue and Southampton Town, he assisted their cause by submitting a legal brief in support of their argument.

Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller said he does not know if Mr. Tohill will appeal Judge Tomlinson’s decision. He and other members of the Village Board have declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Mayor-Elect Maria Moore said she has been following the litigation but, at this time, she’s not sure what she would do if the EEEA does decide to move forward with the eruv. “I think I’d like to speak to the attorneys representing the village to fully understand the implications of the decision,” Ms. Moore said.

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