David Schneider, a Dallas resident, has filed a lawsuit against his neighbor, Rabbi Yaakov Rich, for using his 3,700 square foot home as an Orthodox synagogue known as Congregation Toras Chaim in what he alleges to be a violation of homeowners’ association rules. In addition, Mr. Schneider complains that the Rabbi’s use of the home as a synagogue has lowered his property value. Schneider seeks as relief “$50,000 in compensatory damages due to decline in the value of Schneider’s home, as caused by defendants.” Apparently, the synagogue conducts religious worship services for approximately 25 Jews one to two times per day. Other neighbors have raised concerns about traffic generated by religious worship services, as well as the appearance of the home looking more like a synagogue than a private residence. Some neighbors have posted signs on their property reading “keep us residential only” to oppose the use of the home as a synagogue. Reportedly, Rabbi Rich does not live at the home, but instead rents it to someone else.
The Liberty Institute represents Rabbi Rich and has asserted the Rabbi’s right to use the home for religious worship services pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Justin Butterfield, the lawyer from the Liberty Institute handling the case, stated that “[t]he Religious Land Use and institutionalized Persons Act . . . protects religious land use. And that can be anything from a church to a person having a Bible study in their home.” The Liberty Institute writes on its blog “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 full blog post can be accessed here.
Rabbi Rich stated “We just want to have our religious freedom to be able to pray and to study in this house.” This is not the first time that a court may be asked to consider whether RLUIPA affords religious protection to individuals to conduct religious worship services for themselves and others from their home. See Konikov v. Orange County, Florida, 410 F.3d 1317 (11th Cir. 2005); Murphy v. New Milford Zoning Commission, 402 F.3d 342 (2d Cir. 2005). Reportedly, the City of Dallas has requested that the Rabbi obtain a certificate of occupancy to use his home as a synagogue. Depending on the City’s imposition of its land use requirements on Congregation Toras Chaim, including a potential denial of the certificate of occupancy, it may soon find itself embroiled in the lawsuit defending against claims that it violated RLUIPA.