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

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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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