Jewish Journal


April 12, 2001

Fighting Exclusion

Zoning ...primarily hurts [the]Orthodox.


Congregation Etz Chaim on Highland Avenue in Hancock Park

Congregation Etz Chaim on Highland Avenue in Hancock Park

In a Philadelphia suburb, a Reform congregation has fought for more than a year to create a synagogue on a parcel of land that for many years had been the site of a Roman Catholic novitiate. An Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles has been in court for years over their use of a private house, even though their neighbors thoroughly approve of the shul. And in New Rochelle, N.Y., a modern Orthodox congregation has been stymied in what seemed like a routine move -- across the street.

Now, thanks to a 6-month-old federal law, the three congregations are starting to think they might finally prevail in their struggles with zoning and planning boards and, in some cases, neighbors.

Thus far, however, only one religious institution has won its case under the new law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), according to a Web site devoted to the legislation (www.rluipa.org).

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in December that a small church could occupy a storefront in Grand Haven, Mich. Church officials had been told by the town that religious meetings and worship were not permitted at that location under city zoning laws, though private clubs, fraternal organizations and other assemblies were allowed in the zone.

Nunnery OK

Lacking its own building, Kol Ami in suburban Philadelphia has rented space for services and for its Hebrew school from theaters and other schools and facilities. Leaders thought they had found a perfect site in Abington Township -- an 11-acre wooded parcel with a chapel that they could adapt and another building that could be altered for its school and offices. And the order of nuns who own the site were hoping that the purchaser would maintain it for religious uses.

But nearby residents said the synagogue would bring excessive noise and traffic and would lower the value of their homes. Township officials, meanwhile, dispute whether the synagogue would constitute a so-called "continued use" of the site under a current exception.

This month the zoning board ruled against the congregation, saying that the latter's claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was not timely and that the township's zoning ordinance "does not unreasonably limit" religious assemblies or institutions. The congregation, which has already spent $100,000 for lawyers and consultants, is girding for the costs and tsuris of an appeal.

City of Angels

Etz Chaim of Hancock Park, a tiny Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, has had nothing but grief since it moved into its current site about seven years ago, said its rabbi, Chaim Rubin.

Etz Chaim is a shtiebel, a synagogue in a home, and its members are mostly elderly and disabled. For most of them, it is the only shul they can walk to.

But houses of worship are forbidden within the Hancock Park residential zone. At the behest of a residents' group, the city of Los Angeles has successfully fought the congregation's bid for a special-use permit in local and state courts. The shul is appealing the matter in federal court and has spent more than $50,000 in the process.

For a generation, Rabbi Rubin's parents' home was a shtiebel in the same neighborhood, but the congregation outgrew it. Its members purchased a home, which, he noted, is "at the corner of two secondary highway thoroughfares, traveled by some 84,000 cars daily." For daily prayer, a small minyan meets each morning for about half an hour and again at sundown for another half-hour, Rubin testified to Congress. On Shabbat, as many as 50 men and women walk to and from the shul.

"That is all we do."

Rubin noted that the zoning ordinance primarily hurts Orthodox Jews, because they must live within walking distance from their shul. "Our right to pray in our neighborhood has been, at best, ignored, or probably more accurately, trampled upon," he said, adding that he believes the primary reason the residents' group is opposing the shul so strongly is their concern that it will attract more Orthodox Jews to the neighborhood.

The congregation, Rubin said, has had to spend $50,000 on lobbying and application fees. The expense would be significantly greater were it not for a neighbor who happens to be the managing partner of a Los Angeles law firm that is handling the case pro bono.

"I'm thrilled with" the RLUIPA, Rubin said, adding he hopes that when the case comes up in federal court in July, it will make Los Angeles "start doing business a little differently than it did before."

A Garage for Nondrivers

Things are no better for Young Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., a modern Orthodox congregation that for the past six years has sought to move to a larger site diagonally across from its current location, according to Michael Turek, financial secretary and chairman of community relations for the 245-family shul.

Overcrowding has gotten so bad, Turek said, that the congregation has to hold three separate Shabbat morning services, each is standing room only. On the High Holidays, he continued, the synagogue has four simultaneous prayer groups, each in a separate room.

To ease neighbors' opposition, the congregation has even offered to build an underground parking lot, despite the fact that congregants will walk to the shul on Shabbat. It has also offered to reduce the size of its planned social hall and have voluntarily "mandated to use it only for member-family life-cycle events," Turek said.

He said environmental and other studies, as well as attorneys' fees and other expenses incurred in trying to gain a zoning variance, have "cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though we haven't put a shovel in the ground." And that is before the zoning hearing has even begun. Turek said he hopes that will take place by the summer. And now he hopes the federal law will bring a happy result.

Provisions of the Law

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which President Clinton signed into law last September, was meant to restore some of the safeguards for religious institutions that were lost when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1997. The new law says, "No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution." It also says, "No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less-than-equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution."

There are exceptions if the government demonstrates there is "a compelling governmental interest," and the zoning law is "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest," the law states.

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