Early last month, a few weeks after members Congregation Toras Chaim partook of a dessert reception to celebrate their victory in a lengthy court battle with the Highlands of McKamy Homeowners Association, Rabbi Yaakov Rich realized the synagogue's legal tribulation had only begun. On March 3, the city of Dallas, a bureaucracy far more formidable than the 247-home HOA, sued to stop the synagogue's members from worshiping in the home at 7103 Mumford Court, at least until the synagogue met city code requirements for parking, handicapped accessibility and fire safety.
On Monday, the congregation and its attorneys at the Liberty Institute fired back, arguing in court documents that the city's requirements place an illegal burden on their free exercise of religion.
Their argument is essentially the same as the one that successfully beat back the HOA's attempt to enforce deed restrictions requiring that houses in the neighborhood be used only as single-family. In that case CTC contended -- and Collin County District Judge Jill Willis agreed -- that the synagogue was protected from the HOA's deed restrictions by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and its state-level parallel, Texas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act, both of which are designed to protect religious practice from potentially discriminatory zoning laws and other forms of government interference. In the current case, CTC argues that the same laws protect it from Dallas' certificate-of-occupancy requirements.
Here's how they put it in their filing:
The ordinance as applied to CTC imposes a substantial burden on the religious practice of CTC's members; it does not further a compelling government interest; nor is it the least restrictive means of furthering any such interest that may exist. The ordinance as applied to CTC also violates RLUIPA because it would treat CTC's religious activities on unequal terms with other non-residential uses that are or have taken place throughout Dallas and Collin County. The ordinance as applied to CTC also violates RLUIPA because it would discriminate against CTC on the basis of religion or religious denomination as there are other religious groups across the City of Dallas that meet in similar numbers and frequency that CTC meets, yet the City of Dallas does not enforce the ordinance at issue in the same way against these groups. Finally, the ordinance as applied to CTC also violates RLUIPA because it imposes and implements a land use regulation that unreasonably limits religious assemblies within a jurisdiction.
Daniel P. Dalton, a Michigan lawyer who chairs the American Bar Association's Religious Land Use Committee, says CTC would be likely to prevail on its objections to the city's parking requirement. The city insists that CTC offer 13 spaces, but Dalton says that courts in similar cases typically find that there are other ways to satisfy the compelling interest local governments have in regulating the flow of cars that are less burdensome on a religious institution. It is generally much harder to convince judges that fire-safety requirements are unduly burdensome.
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"Quite frankly, most judges are going to say, 'I get that [complying with the fire code can be costly], I want to make sure the community is safe,'" Dalton says.
But Dalton says it depends on the specific circumstances. The city is pushing CTC to install a sprinkler system and build a firewall between the bottom-floor, where the congregation meets, and the top floor, where Rich's son lives. Perhaps a judge will find that there's another, cheaper way to prevent fires.
CTC is also seeking to have the case transferred out of Dallas County, where it was filed, and into Collin County, where the congregation is located. CTC portrays this as a matter of both justice (i.e. that the dispute should be heard by courts in the county in which it originated) and convenience (i.e. it's unfair to force synagogue members to travel to a different county). The latter argument loses some of its force given that Dallas County's George Allen Courthouse is actually 4.5 miles closer to the Highlands of McKamy neighborhood than is the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney. Presumably the fact that CTC has already found a favorable audience in Collin County is presumably also a consideration.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.