Rabbi Yaakov Rich, the leader of Congregation Toras Chaim, has been teaching the Torah for years and is highly respected by his congregation and friends. When he heard in 2007 that a group of people in the Highlands of McKamy neighborhood in far north Dallas wanted to form a Jewish community focused on the Ohr HaTorah Shul outlook on spiritual life, which is only practiced by one other synagogue in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, he decided to help. Rabbi Rich moved to the neighborhood and founded Congregation Toras Chaim. The small congregation met in Rabbi Rich’s home beginning in February 2011.
However, the rabbi’s home was not a suitable environment due to the busy lifestyle of his large family, so Rabbi Rich decided to move the synagogue from his own home to another house a short walk away with the financial help of one of his good friends, who also allowed Rabbi Rich’s son to rent the residence. The synagogue has been using the home ever since May 2013.
Because tenets of the Orthodox Jewish faith instruct members not to drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, the congregation must meet within walking distances of its members’ homes. In the North Dallas Eruv (a zone with special rules for travel on the Sabbath), there is no other place for the synagogue to go.
The Highlands of McKamy IV and V homeowners association (HOA) had full knowledge of the congregation’s religious activities and took no action. However, when the congregation relocated in May 2013, the congregation moved to a home across from David Schneider—a disgruntled neighbor upset by the congregation’s activities. In December 2013, Schneider filed a lawsuit against Congregation Toras Chaim and the owners of the residence where they were meeting.
Schneider contended that the congregation’s religious activities violated the neighborhood’s residential-only restrictive covenant. However, the HOA had not taken enforcement actions against several other non-residential uses of property in the area it governed, including a shed in Schneider’s own yard that violated the covenants.
In addition, banning the congregation from conducting its religious activities in the home would have substantially burdened the free exercise of religion of the congregation’s members, thus violating two key laws: the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Both of these laws were passed to protect against hostility to religion.
However, Schneider and like-minded friends took control of the HOA board. Despite protests from many HOA members who opposed the suit, Schneider and his allies dragged the association into the case.
Complaints cited against Congregation Toras Chaim included petty grievances such as:
First Liberty Institute stepped in to help defend the congregation’s right to continue its religious meetings in the home. In April 2014, Collin County District Court Judge Jill Willis denied the HOA’s request for an injunction that would have stopped the congregation from continuing its religious practices during the lawsuit.
On February 4, 2015, at a hearing for a motion for summary judgment, Judge Willis decided the case in favor of the congregation, ruling that the congregation had the right to continue meeting in the private home for worship.
After the ruling, Rabbi Rich expressed his thankfulness for the court’s favorable decision. He also said, “I pray that today marks the beginning of a new era of tolerance and peace in our community.”
In addition, Justin Butterfield, First Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel and Director of Research and Education, said, “We are grateful that the District Court upheld these members’ religious liberty rights.” He continued, “We are thankful that these Jewish families will no longer be under attack for exercising their right to worship God as prescribed by the tenets of their faith.”
However, in March 2015, just a few weeks after the judge ended Schneider’s attempt to stop the congregation’s religious activities in the private home, the city of Dallas filed a lawsuit accusing the congregation of violating regulations. The lawsuit requested crippling civil penalties of $1,000 per day per alleged infraction. Infractions included the congregation’s lack of 13 off-street parking spaces and one disabled parking space—despite the fact that members of the congregation do not drive on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The city is also attempting to require the congregation to have two doorways in the front of the home. Demanded property alterations required to avoid the fines would cost the small congregation over $200,000.
When asked at a March 3 press conference what is at stake, Rabbi Rich stated, “The spiritual lives of approximately 20 families. We’re talking about, ultimately, closing down. There’s no way we could do what the city is asking us to do.”
With no other place to walk to worship on the Sabbath, families would have to move their residences, and the congregation’s religious life would be ended.
“Throughout this country there are people meeting in homes for Bible studies, prayer meetings, and other gatherings with far more people than Congregation Toras Chaim,” Butterfield stated, “yet the city of Dallas has decided to go after this small community.”
“Indeed, people have been meeting in homes to worship for thousands of years in virtually every nation on earth,” Butterfield continued. “Countries that prohibit such freedoms are nations like China, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Yemen. We will not allow the United States to be added to that list.”
On March 11, 2015, nine days after the City of Dallas filed the lawsuit, somebody spray-painted a Nazi swastika on Rabbi Rich’s car.
The swastika incident is not the only time the congregation has faced anti-religious hostility.
“In Orthodox Jewish homes, there is a little box on the doorway with a scroll on it with a scripture on it, and in the past, somebody had ripped that off of the doorway. They’ve also had people drive in front of the home screaming obscenities at them,” Butterfield said, as quoted in an online article by the Dallas/Fort Worth CBS television affiliate.
On Monday, April 6, 2015, First Liberty Institute filed a response to the city’s lawsuit. The response included a counter-lawsuit against the city on behalf of Rabbi Rich and the congregation for the city’s unreasonable demands.
The counter-lawsuit stated that the city’s demands violated federal and state law—including the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), the Texas Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause through the city’s violation of Section 1983, Chapter 106 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
“This small Jewish congregation is being victimized by unreasonable regulation and litigation,” Butterfield said. “We are very optimistic that the courts will affirm that that city cannot restrict religious exercise without compelling reasons. The First Amendment of the Constitution gives ironclad protection to the free exercise of religion as every American’s first and highest right.”
First Liberty Institute is committed to working to protect the religious freedom of Congregation Toras Chaim and other houses of worship—including the freedom to worship, study, and pray in private homes, whether hosting a Bible study or other small religious meetings. First Liberty Institute offers legal assistance free of charge to help defend the religious freedoms of individuals, churches and religious institutions of all faiths across America.
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