The City of Dallas is suing Congregation Toras Chaim, Inc. (“CTC”), a small Jewish Orthodox synagogue that operates out of a private residential home, to enforce the City’s local code and require the synagogue to obtain a certificate of occupancy (“CO”). Reportedly, up to 25 congregants attend religious worship services at the synagogue on the Sabbath. Mark and Judith Gothelf, who own the home, have also been named as defendants. The City alleges that the defendants must renovate the subject property to comply with certain handicap accessibility, fire safety, and parking requirements to obtain a CO. The City alleges in its complaint (available here) that defendants’ failure to “obtain a CO [for synagogue use] and comply with the life-safety requirements entailed therein, presents a substantial danger of injury or adverse health impact to persons and/or property of persons other than the Defendants.”
According to defendants, the cost of implementing the City’s demands would be between $160,000 and $240,000. The defendants, who are represented by the Liberty Institute, informed the City on January 23, 2014 that they would apply for a new CO to avoid litigation. More than a year later, after the defendants still had not applied for a CO, the City informed them that an application would have to be made by February 23, 2015 or they would be sued. The City kept true to its word.
The Liberty Institute has vowed to vigorously defend the rights of CTC, and released a statement noting in part:
People have been meeting in homes to worship for thousands of years in virtually every nation on earth. The only countries that prohibit such freedoms are nations like China, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Yemen. We will not allow the United States to be added to that list.
If CTC sounds familiar, it should. A year ago, we reported that a private homeowner had sued the synagogue to enforce certain homeowners association rules and deed restrictions purporting to bar the use of the home as a synagogue for daily prayer services. Last month, on February 4, 2015, Collin County District Court Judge Jill Willis rejected the private homeowner’s argument that state and federal religious freedom statutes apply only to action by governmental entities, and threw out the case.
In our same post of about a year ago, we noted: “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.” Our prediction appears to have been correct, as the Liberty Institute, in correspondence dated December 3, 2014, stated that although the defendants do “not wish to litigate with the City of Dallas and do sincerely desire an amicable resolution of this dispute … banning the congregants of CTC from practicing their religion would require an aggressive defense of CTC’s rights.”