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Jewish Congregation Sued Again! Liberty Institute Defends Against Shut-Down Threat

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March 6, 2015

First Liberty Institute attorneys warn: “If this synagogue loses, we all lose.”


First Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer, Senior Counsel Justin Butterfield
and Congregation Toras Chaim’s Rabbi Yaakov Rich at a press conference on March 3, 2015.


On Monday, March 2, 2015, the City of Dallas, Texas—the nation’s ninth largest city—sued First Liberty Institute client
Congregation Toras Chaim, a small Orthodox Jewish community of families that meets in a private home for prayer, worship, and religious study. The lawsuit by the City comes on the heels of Congregation Toras Chaim’s winning a lawsuit filed by a disgruntled neighbor and homeowner’s association.  

 

Following that victory on February 4, the congregation believed they were safe and done with litigation efforts seeking to prevent their religious worship. But this week, the City of Dallas started proceedings that would shut down Congregation Toras Chaim. 

 

Ironically, the suit was launched only two days before the Jewish festival of Purim.  Purim celebrates Esther’s protection of the Jewish people from execution by Haman—an official of Persia, which is present-day Iran—and on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic address before a joint session of Congress on Iran’s nuclear threat to the Jewish state of Israel.

 

DESTROYING A SMALL ORTHODOX JEWISH CONGREGATION OVER UNLAWFUL RED TAPE

 

In the latest legal attack on the congregation, Dallas is requesting potentially crippling civil penalties of $1,000 per day per violation, enough to shut down the congregation.What did Congregation Toras Chaim do to merit such severe punishment?

 

The alleged infractions, according to the City’s lawsuit, include the lack of 13 off-street parking spaces and one disabled parking space. But since Congregation Toras Chaim members do not drive on the Sabbath—so that the congregation’s families must live within walking distance to where they worship—it makes no sensefor the City of Dallas to require that they have these parking spaces. There are further requirements demanded by the City, such as two doorways in the front of the home. 

 

But according to First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Justin Butterfield, “There are good, sound religious liberty laws designed to protect congregations just like Toras Chaim.” He predicted all city objections will be defeated in court because the congregation’s case is so firmly grounded in law saying that such requirements do not apply.

 

“WE WILL NOT ALLOW THE UNITED STATES TO BE ADDED TO THAT LIST”

 

Indeed, as First Liberty Institute argued in winning the earlier lawsuit, Texas and federal lawsprotect groups like this small Jewish community from the overly-bureaucratic requirements stated by the city. 

 

When asked at a March 3 press conference what is at stake, Congregation Toras Chaim’s Rabbi Yaakov 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. 

 

The congregation’s religious life would be ended if they could not meet in their community. To add perspective, Butterfield stated:


“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, 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. 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.”


ATTACKS, VICTORIES, THEN MORE ATTACKS

 

Much more is at stake than one congregation. This fits a growing pattern of attacks on houses of worship across the nation—a pattern First Liberty Institute attorneys have documented in their annual survey, UNDENIABLE: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America. It is also a pattern that they have countered by a series of recent court victories:

 

For example, in Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi, First Liberty Institute won a major federal victory when a city tried to ban a church from a downtown area. This set a precedent for tens of thousands of churches and synagogues.

 

Despite such victories, much courtroom work remains to be done to apply this precedent, and other law, to case after case, as government entities attempt to unlawfully oppress, burden, or outlaw houses of worship.

 

IF THIS CONGREGATION LOSES, WE ALL LOSE

 

Rabbi Rich says, “We are a very small group of families under a very big microscope.” The ordeal has been a strain on the congregation’s families, but they are willing to take this on their shoulders for the sake of their spiritual community and religious freedom in America. He says other Jewish congregations from across the nation have been contacting him in case they are attacked, and there has been widespread media coverage.

 

“This outcome matters,” said Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty Institute President & CEO. “Orthodox Jewish congregants do not drive on Saturday (the Sabbath) and must walk to worship. Since no other viable alternatives within walking distance exist, if they are unlawfully burdened or forced to leave the neighborhood then the congregation is likely to disband.” 


Shackelford put it bluntly:


“Any verdict that does not protect this congregation would be tragic. Not only for them, not only for Dallas, but for America. If small meetings by people of faith are not allowed in their homes, that would greatly damage religious freedom for all.”


First Liberty Institute staff attorneys and our volunteer litigators are confident of victory in this newest attack against Congregation Toras Chaim. But without financial support from First Liberty Institute friends, a house of worship such as this would have no resources to stand up for religious freedom. 




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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.

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