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First Liberty Backs Neighborhood Synagogue Before New Jersey Supreme Court

First Liberty submitted an amicus brief earlier this month in support of Chai Center for Living Judaism.

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November 4, 2016
Reading from the Torah

A neighborhood in Millburn, New Jersey is attempting to force an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue out because it meets in a home. But First Liberty Institute is standing with the synagogue members and their religious liberty rights.

The case, Welch v. Chai Center for Living Judaism, is currently before the New Jersey Supreme Court. First Liberty attorneys submitted an amicus, or “friend of the court” brief in the case earlier this month.

First Liberty attorneys believe their amicus brief could impact the court’s decision.

“An effective amicus brief can assist a court in deciding issues that have potential ramifications behind the case at hand,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty Senior Counsel.

First Liberty claims that the outcome in Welch v. Chai Center for Living Judaism could affect the freedom of other houses of worship in America.

BACKGROUND: CHAI CENTER FOR LIVING JUDAISM

The Chai Center for Living Judaism is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Township of Milburn, New Jersey, led by Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky. Like many Orthodox Jewish synagogues, the Chai Center house of worship must be located within walking distance of its members’ homes, “because they’re not allowed to drive on the Sabbath,” First Liberty Senior Counsel Justin Butterfield told OneNewsNow.

The legal battle began when some neighbors filed a lawsuit claiming the synagogue violated deed restrictions on its property.

While neighbors demand the removal of the synagogue from a neighborhood, Butterfield says this will burden the Chai Center’s religious exercise.

“Restrictive covenants should not be misused to discriminate against religious groups,” Richard Ranieri, partner at Weber Gallagher, the law firm defending the synagogue, says. “Here, enforcing these restrictive covenants against the Chai Center would force the center out of the community simply because it is a religious institution.”

FIRST LIBERTY ARGUES FOR THE CHAI CENTER’S FREEDOM

In the amicus brief submitted to the New Jersey Supreme Court October 20, First Liberty describes “a troubling rise in the use of restrictive covenants to attempt to force unwanted houses of worship out of communities.”

First Liberty attorneys go on to argue that forcing the Chai Center to move from its residential location will require all Orthodox Jewish members of the Center to either move, violate their religious beliefs, or forego religious assembly.

And while First Liberty attorneys ardently oppose the violation of the Chai Center’s rights, they also believe the outcome of the case could have bigger ramifications. As the brief states:

This case is important to First Liberty and to our clients because it will set an important precedent as to the extent to which restrictive covenants may be enforced against religious houses of worship in ways that stop religious practice in a community or are potentially discriminatory against unwanted religious groups.

THE GROWING POWER OF AMICUS BRIEFS

Even though First Liberty is not representing the Chai Center itself, First Liberty attorneys believe their amicus brief could carry weight with the justices.

“Increasingly, amicus curiae briefs are becoming a larger part of appellate litigation,” Berry explained. “Many litigators are realizing that they can be an effective way to influence the outcome of litigation and can address arguments that might fall outside the narrow scope of issues directly before the parties.”

FIRST LIBERTY’S RECORD PROTECTING SYNAGOGUES

This is not the first time First Liberty has supported a Jewish synagogue in its time of legal trouble.

One ongoing case deals with the same problem that is currently before the New Jersey Supreme Court — whether members of a synagogue can hold their weekly meetings in a neighborhood residence. First Liberty client Congregation Toras Chaim has been fighting this legal battle for years.

Just a few weeks ago, First Liberty stepped in to help a California synagogue banned from performing a religious ceremony during Yom Kippur.

“The Chai Center’s ability to assemble for worship is essential to their First Amendment free exercise of religion,” Butterfield said. “The congregation has the right to gather for worship without discrimination. Forcing an Orthodox Jewish synagogue out of its community is forcing Orthodox Jewish religious practice out of that community.”

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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