Despite Neighbors' Pleas, Collin County Judge Rules Living-room Synagogue Can Stay Open

Categories: Religion

CongregationPicture.JPG
Welcome to your friendly neighborhood synagogue.
A synagogue operating out of a Far North Dallas home has won a preliminary victory over neighbors who want it shut down.

Collin County District Judge Jill Willis this morning denied the Highlands of McKamy homeowners association's request for a temporary injunction against Congregation Toras Chaim, which operates out of a single-family home in the neighborhood.

Liberty Institute spokesman Gregg Wooding says the ruling comes just in time to ensure that Rabbi Yaakov Rich and his congregants can celebrate Passover in their place of worship.

See also: Far North Dallas Rabbi Cries Discrimination as Neighbors Try to Close His Living-Room Synagogue

The neighborhood dispute began simmering last year, shortly after Congregation Toras Chaim moved into a home on Mumford Court. Neighbor David Schneider, annoyed by the traffic from the thrice-daily prayer services, Torah study, weekly services and other shul-related events, sued, charging Congregation Toras Chaim and Mark and Judith Gothelf (they own the house but don't live there) with violating their deed restrictions. Schneider demanded $50,000 in damages, which was how much he said his property value had declined by.

Things escalated in February with the involvement of the Liberty Institute, the conservative religious advocacy group based in Plano. They argued that Schneider's lawsuit was an attack on religious liberty and that the First Amendment trumps any deed restrictions.

Liberty bases its legal argument on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that limits local government's power to apply zoning rules to religious groups. Whether that law applies here -- an SMU law professor told The Dallas Morning News that it's not clear whether it applies to HOA covenants -- hasn't yet been settled.

That wasn't the point of today's hearing, which was to determine whether the continued use of the Mumford Court house as a synagogue was sufficiently damaging to the neighborhood that it needed to be stopped.

In a brief (embedded below), Liberty puts the religious-freedom rhetoric in the back seat and focuses on more prosaic matters, like the fact that Congregation Toras Chaim had been operating out of another house in the neighborhood for three years without objection and that no one seems to mind that another neighbor charges for swimming lessons in their backyard pool.

"The evidence showed the congregation fits in well with the community, [that] they're a benefit to the community," said Liberty Institute attorney Justin Butterfield.

Schneider, who filed the suit pro se, and the HOA's attorney, called a series of witnesses but none convinced the judge that the synagogue was changing the status quo, one of the criteria that has to be met for issuing a temporary injunction. Butterfield says a lot of it focused on people having to stop while pedestrians crossed the street.

Plano-based conservative legal advocacy group Liberty Institute -- which made national headlines arguing religious freedom cases for predominantly Christian clients -- is representing the synagogue pro bono. Congregation Toras Chaim is protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law designed to protect religious liberties from zoning rules, said the synagogue's attorney, Justin Butterfield.

"There are tens of thousands of Americans who have prayer meetings and small groups at their homes," Butterfield said. "We think those rights should be protected for everyone, whether it's a Christian family or a Jewish congregation."

Whether RLUIPA applies in this case is yet to be determined because it has historically been implemented in government land use regulations, not private agreements like restrictive covenants, said Julia Forrester, interim dean and professor of law at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

"If we look at the statute, it applies to government regulations as opposed to private agreements," said Forrester, who specializes in property law and land use. "But that doesn't mean it couldn't be applied here."

Congregation Toras Chaim has filed a motion for summary judgment, which is scheduled to be heard on June 12.

Liberty Institute/Congregation Toras Chaim Brief

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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42 comments
Lurch
Lurch

See what Ted Cruz thinks about it.

CornyDoggy
CornyDoggy

Who cares if there is "extra traffic" in the neighborhood? What's the big deal?  If you want complete silence and no people around, then move to the effing country.  Just because it's a suburb doesn't mean it's not urban living.

roo_ster
roo_ster

I assume the house owner has signed the HOA deed restrictions without threats?  If so, they need to abide by their agreement.  Enforcement of private contracts is one of the primary duties of gov't.



RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

Wouldn't they have acknowledged the deed restriction by signing the covenant?  Seems like that would both supercede the religious freedom and damn them to an eternity of hellfire and damnation (for practicing deception in the name of the Lord.)  

Things like this are why I avoid organized religion just keep my beliefs to myself.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

You could do what some enterprising folks have done to annoy congregating Muslims, Saturday pig roasts.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

I am sure the neighbors can find some entertaining ways " within the Law of course " to annoy the crap out of The Wonderful people who worship in that Home .



weirdozmedia
weirdozmedia

"There are tens of thousands of Americans who have prayer meetings and small groups at their homes," Butterfield said. "We think those rights should be protected for everyone, whether it's a Christian family or a Jewish congregation."


And Muslims too, right?

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

Question: Where is the required on-site off-street parking for the church use?

A 2,500 sq.ft. church facility would require at least 10 parking spaces and 2 handicapped-designated spaces on the site.

lebowski300
lebowski300

It is impossible for me to side with an HOA. An interesting followup would be exactly what sort of neighbor to neighbor communication occurred. Sounds a lot like the upset neighbor went straight to suing with little effort at compromise, something all too familiar with HOAs. But maybe it is the other way round. Which is why that would make a good article.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

Why do something you know will piss of the neighbors ?

 

 



TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

Does anyone live there? I think that's a pertinent question as to whether this is a residence or a de facto "meeting hall".

It mentions in the blog that the owners don't actually reside at the home but doesn't specify if there are other tenants or not.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

I'm with the neighbors on this - it's like folks who have perpetual yard sales, no-one wants excessive traffic in a residential area.

To hide behind some "religious freedom" BS cheapens the term, religion got nuthin' to do with it.

Of course, if some of the neighbors started daily Tupperware or Mary Kay parties, they could claim "economic freedom", see how that works out.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Lurch

I'm kind of surprised PoTUS hasn't weighed in, but then again, he's busy telling yet more proved lies to radical racialists at some sort of nutter gathering of community -organizing types. Dude just can't seem to help himself with this little problem of mis-stating facts.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@CornyDoggy

Who cares? Likely the people who purchased a home because of the low volume of traffic - just a guess.

Have you ever lived on the same street as someone who has a garage sale every other week? Do you know why the various suburbs cracked down on that practice?

Ever lived near someone that throws lots of drunken parties with loud music, wild driving, wine-cooler bottles all over the place? Ever wonder why the cops shut that shit down?

It's called "quality of life", and when people can't reasonably control themselves in regards to that, you get laws and enforcement.

Ever wonder why Arlington, for instance, banned parking on lawns?

DMZ3
DMZ3

@roo_ster  So is protecting religious liberty. It's an interesting conundrum because here's a case where two rights clash with each other.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@weirdomozilla

Or Mormons, Hindus, Baha'i, all of which constitute a greater percentage of faiths than Muslims in Collin County.

DMZ3
DMZ3

@holmantx  Might not apply in this case. Dallas apparently makes an exception for private religious services held in residential homes. These are not technically considered churches.

roo_ster
roo_ster

@lebowski300  

It is very possible that there are no neighbors involved, as the owners of the house do not live there, and no "neighbor to neighbor" communication possible.

James080
James080

@oakclifftownie If they don't actually live there, they probably don't see themselves as neighbors. In that case, they likely don't give a damn what impact their activities have on the neighborhood. 


lebowski300
lebowski300

@oakclifftownie  Because fuck neighbors who get pissed off. I had a neighbor tell me not to park my Saturn in front of his house because he didn't like looking at it from his living room window.

DMZ3
DMZ3

@TheRuddSki  Apparently some of the neighbors are also running businesses, according to the court papers. There's a swimming lessons business and several homes used as assisted-living facilities in the neighborhood. That the HOA never went after them, according to the court, waives their right to stay the synagogue.


The crux is that Texas law allows people to run businesses outside of their homes, and an HOA covenant doesn't invalidate this. But that's provided the business is ancillary to the residence. But the Rabbi's kid also lives at the house. I'm rooting for the synagogue.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Yup, like v like. Party on. Santeria would be neat next door.

CornyDoggy
CornyDoggy

Agreed, except none of your examples apply to this situation. Nobody is throwing loud drunken parties, garage sales, or parking on lawns. There is no litter everywhere.

Worst case is there are a few extra cars parked on the street. If that effects someone's "quality of life", then I doubt they're enjoying life much anyway.

AdamsonScott
AdamsonScott

@DMZ3 @roo_sterFunny how they didn't raise the "religious liberty" red herring when they signed the agreement in the first place. 

lebowski300
lebowski300

I don't disagree with you. In fact an even more compelling read, should an article of substance be written. I'm interested. It is a compelling story at its base.

upallnight
upallnight

@James080


Orthodox Jews do not drive on their Sabbath (Saturdays), so they have to live within walking distance of their synagogues. So ALL the congregants of that synagogue live in the surrounding neighborhood.


The truth is having an orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood most likely increased the guys real estate value, since there is a demand for homes in the area since people need to live within a walk of their place of worship.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@lebowski300

A Saturn?.

Lucky you weren't arrested.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@DMZ3

Ah, having not read the papers, I was unaware of the issues you raise - and those facts now swing me in an opposite direction, the synagogue does have a good case, and it doesn't even have to be based on religious discrimination - just unjustified selective "enforcement". The objecting neighbor might just have to suck up.

It would have been good journalistic practice for the writer to have included the facts you just presented.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

CornyDoggy

I'm just giving examples of "who cares", using my own experiences in Arlington over a couple of decades.

We have no idea what "a few extra cars" is in this case. Often, cars parked on both sides reduce a street to one lane. But with no real info, it's all just speculation of worst-case scenarios.

As DMZ3 points out below, court papers show that "businesses" and other traffic-drawing activities are tolerated in this area - a rather important element left out of this report. If correct, then it looks like their may be selective enforcement and the neighbor might just have to deal with it.

DMZ3
DMZ3

@AdamsonScott @DMZ3 @roo_ster  But according to the court, the synagogue was never in violation of the HOA agreement to begin with. It's the HOA trying to pull a fast one, not them.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

@blankcur1 @oakclifftownieWhich is the Sabbath ?

DMZ3
DMZ3

@James080 @upallnight The court *did* stay the HOA claim, though, on the basis of RLUIPA. One of the arguments made by the court was that the synagogue was not in violation of the covenant (the Rabbi's son lives there), and the HOA has not enforced restrictions on other home-based businesses involving the public in the neighborhood. So the synagogue can say -- rightfully, it could be argued -- that they're being singled out for their religious practices.

James080
James080

@upallnight  

Churches, temples and mosques are essentially businesses. These businesses are run by their members, and managed by their appointed or elected leader, be it a rabbi, pastor or imam. Money comes in, expenses are paid, and alms are sometimes given, but the surplus goes into someone's pocket. The fact that the IRS exempts these businesses from taxes doesn't negate the fact that they are in fact business organizations. Home based businesses should never involve public traffic to the business premises. 


The customs of Orthodox Jews is irrelevant. When they purchased that residence in an that neighborhood, they agreed to abide by the restrictive covenants, which doesn't allow their current use of the property. Neither does the municipal zoning for the property.

They may evade the zoning laws based on a narrow reading of RLUIPA (although I doubt it), but the restrictive covenants represent a private contract between all of the neighbors. RLUIPA will not shield them from complying with the covenants. Look for an unhappy ending for the congregation.

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