Montclair is said to be a progressive town, but it is also said that progressives have taken an illiberal turn. Three recent developments in town governance reflect this trend.

On June 22, the Township Council passed an ordinance requiring that single-occupancy bathrooms in public accommodations be gender neutral. The sponsoring councilman said it was intended to be more inclusive to transgender people so “they don’t have anxiety about which bathroom to go into.” But others may have different, perfectly valid priorities. Business owners may feel that separate bathrooms better serve their clientele. Female customers may prefer designated bathrooms to ensure their safety, or for cleanliness if men who don’t put up the seat. There isn’t one right answer to the issue.

The ordinance is also heavy-handed. Non-compliant businesses are now subject to a fine of up to $2,000 per violation, which could reach $730,000 if a business were noncompliant every day for a year. Is the council really willing to impose that cost, when many Montclair businesses report that they are struggling?

The bathroom ordinance is also troubling because it does not arise from any demonstrated local problem. Most businesses already have unisex bathrooms and no one had objected to signage in any Montclair public accommodation. Its sponsor told the law is a way to “codify Montclair’s reputation and values into law and to be a counterweight to the legislation against transgender people that we see happening all over America.”

But the township should not fine local businesses to make a statement on national politics. And if the bathroom ordinance is meant to express opposition to laws passed elsewhere or codify a set of values, it improperly compels private individuals to engage in political speech.

The indoor mask mandate, which the council has imposed through March 31, poses similar issues. Most towns have not imposed a mandate and many individuals do not wear masks indoors or expect others to do so. The facts do not point unambiguously to the need for a mandate — omicron transmission has peaked and it is much milder and less fatal than delta, especially among vaccinated people, who comprise 79% of Montclair’s population.

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The township should leave private individuals and organizations free to handle the situation as they see fit.

The third illiberal governance issue is the police investigation into an anonymous letter sent to a couple who displayed Black Lives Matter signs at their residence. The letter reportedly is critical of BLM but, according to Montclair’s Police captain, “does not contain any racist or hateful content.”

Nonetheless it is the subject of a “bias incident” investigation. If the letter does not contain threats or intimidation, then the police have nothing to investigate. In the absence of any chargeable offense, the investigation can have a chilling effect on political speech and sends a message that wrongthink can lead to prosecution.

Progressives in township government should embrace the liberal values of tolerance for individual diversity in political and social life, and refrain from using government coercion to impose their political values on others.

Bradley Harsch


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