Nation’s ninth largest city tries to shut down Congregation Toras Chaim and prohibit Jewish families from worshipping in a private home
Rabbi Yaakov Rich, leader of Congregation Toras Chaim, is hopeful
his small congregation of approximately 20 families will not be shut down by the City of Dallas.
On Monday, April 6, 2015, First Liberty Institute filed a response to a lawsuit by the City of Dallas, Texas against Congregation TorasChaim, a small Orthodox Jewish congregation. The response includes a counter- lawsuit against the city on behalf of the congregation and its leader, Rabbi Yaakov Rich, for the City’s unlawful attempt to shut down the congregation.
First Liberty Institute’s countersuit is part of an effort to stop the city from continuing to threaten approximately 20 Jewish members’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs by meeting in a private home for worship, study and prayer.
“This small Jewish congregation is being victimized by unreasonable and unnecessary regulation and litigation,” said Jeff Mateer, First Liberty Institute’s General Counsel. “We are very optimistic that, as it was determined in a prior lawsuit, the trial court will rule in favor of the religious freedom rights of our client when it considers the law and facts of this case.”
AMERICA’S NINTH LARGEST CITY VIOLATES THE LAW BY GOING AFTER SMALL CONGREGATION
Ironically, the City of Dallas launched its lawsuit only two days before the Jewish festival of Purim which celebrates Esther’s protection of the Jewish people from execution by Haman—and demanded a penalty that would end this small congregation. The City is requesting potentially crippling civil penalties of $1,000 per day per violation of alleged infractions of regulations, enough to shut down Congregation Toras Chaim.
What kind of infractions is the city upset over? City officials demand the home provide 13 off-street parking spaces and one disabled parking space.
“This is utterly over-bureaucratic, unnecessary, and unreasonable,” say Mateer. “Congregation Toras Chaim members do not drive to the home on the Sabbath or other religious holidays, according to the tenets of their faith—and the small number of families must live within walking distance to where they worship. It makes no sense for the City of Dallas to require that they have these parking spaces.”
Yet to avoid the $1,000 per day per violation fines, the demanded property alterations would cost the tiny congregation over $200,000in order to comply.
Either path would mean the utter demise of the congregation.
The countersuit states that the City of Dallas has clearly violated the law with these unreasonable demands—including the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause through its violation of Section 1983, Chapter 106 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, and the Texas Constitution.
A HISTORY OF ATTACKS
Prior to the City of Dallas lawsuit, on February 4, Congregation Toras Chaim won a separate lawsuit filed by a disgruntled neighbor and the local homeowners association (HOA).
Congregation Toras Chaim has been meeting to study and pray in an area under the authority of the local homeowners association (HOA) since February 2011. For two years, the HOA had full knowledge of the congregation’s religious activities in the neighborhood, and took no action. Then in 2013, the congregation relocated to another home in the area near a past president of the HOA, Mr. David Schneider. Soon, Schneider filed a lawsuit against Congregation Toras Chaim and the owners of the residence where they were meeting.
But after Collin County District Court Judge Jill Willis ruled that Congregation Toras Chaim members have a right to continue meeting for worship in a private home, Rabbi Rich hoped the victory marked “the beginning of a new era of tolerance and peace in our community” and that his congregation would “no longer be under attack for exercising their right to worship God as prescribed by the tenets of their faith.”
THE THRILL OF VICTORY—FOLLOWED BY A SWASTIKA
Shockingly, though, just five weeks later Rabbi Rich was the victim of a separate attack when someone spray-painted a swastika on his car.
At the time, the rabbi said: “I feel completely violated. As a Jew, the swastika is the most offensive symbol that there is. They didn’t just attack me, they attacked every Jew in the City of Dallas.”
Mateer added: “We are horrified to hear of this act of hatred against Rabbi Rich, his family, and Congregation Toras Chaim. Acts of violence against religious beliefs are being perpetrated around the world. But these acts should never be tolerated in America, which was founded on the principle of religious liberty for all. First Liberty Institute is committed to standing by Rabbi Rich, his family, and Congregation Toras Chaim until their religious freedom rights are secured and justice is done.”
MUCH MORE AT STAKE THAN ONE CONGREGATION
According to First Liberty Institute President & CEO, Kelly Shackelford, much more is at stake here than just one congregation.
“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 us all.”
What is happening to Congregation Toras Chaim fits a growing pattern of attacks on houses of worship across the nation—a pattern First Liberty Institute attorneys document 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, including Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi. In this case, First Liberty Institute won a major federal victory when a city tried to ban a small African-American church from a downtown area, setting 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, and First Liberty Institute remains committed to fight for the survival of Congregation Toras Chaim and other houses of worship facing attacks from government entities attempting to unlawfully oppress, burden, or outlaw gatherings of people of faith.
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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.