Welcome to Congregation Toras Chaim. Sure, it may look like your typical Far North Dallas house -- 3,500 square feet, $330,000 on the tax rolls, a swimming pool in the back -- but it doubles as one of the area's newer and smaller synagogues.
This isn't exactly a secret. The congregation's website lists the home as its primary meeting place, hosting daily prayer services, Torah study, and various holiday services and social events. Also, it's hard to disguise the several Orthodox gentlemen who file into the home for the twice-daily services, or the families who walk to the home on the Sabbath.
Neighbors have certainly taken notice. As Fox 4 reported last night, David Schneider, who lives across the street from the budding synagogue, has sued Rabbi Yaakov Rich, saying he is violating the rules of their homeowner's association and is lowering property values. In the suit, Schneider demands $50,000 in compensatory damages.
Rich is unapologetic. "We just want to have our religious freedom to be able to pray and to study in this house," he tells Fox 4.
Also, he says, home prices near Orthodox synagogues "always go up in value, not down."
But what started as a neighborhood squabble is primed to turn into a religious war.
The Liberty Institute, the Plano-based nonprofit famous for Plano ISD's candy-cane case and, more generally, turning trivial bureaucratic slights into examples of a widespread war on religious liberty, is representing Rich in his legal dispute, describing his congregation as "under attack."
"Alarmingly, houses of worship -- including small bodies like Congregation Toras Chaim -- have been increasingly victimized in recent years by unreasonable regulation and litigation that frequently violates their rights," the organization writes on its blog.
Liberty Institute is basing its defense of Rich and his synagogue on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a law passed by Congress in 2000 protecting arbitrary zoning rules that infringe on religious liberty.
Whether that argument flies depends on whether the Liberty Institute and Congregation Toras Chaim can convince the court that the government -- or, in this case, a homeowners association -- has no compelling interest in barring a church or synagogue from operating out of a single-family home.
Whether the fight expands depends on how Dallas chooses to interpret its zoning laws. Churches and homes occupy separate parts of the city's zoning code, with the former required to provide a certain amount of parking.
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Dallas defines a church as "a facility principally used for people to gather together for public worship, religious training, or other religious activities." It also provides an exception for "home study meetings or other religious activities conducted in a privately occupied residence."
Rich tells Fox 4 that the city has asked him to obtain a "certificate as a congregation." We're checking on what exactly that means. (Rich tells us he was referring to a certificate of occupancy.)
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.