Since 1995, the Orthodox Jewish congregation Midrash Sephardi has leased the second floor of a downtown commercial building. Another Jewish congregation, Young Israel, began sharing the same facilities in 2000. Both groups adhere to strict observance of Orthodox Judaism.
However, the city initiated two court actions to enjoin the use of the facilities because the city zoning ordinance does not permit churches and synagogues within its business district. Religious uses are permitted only in the city’s area zoned for residences, a considerable distance away.
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Officials argued the city is dependent on its business district to produce tax revenue for city operations. They emphasized churches and synagogues do not produce such taxes, nor do they encourage retail business “synergy.”
Representatives of the synagogues replied their members often visit nearby commercial stores before and after meetings, but the city zoning ordinance is unconstitutional because no sites for a synagogue are available within the allowed residential zone.
Furthermore, congregation members argued, the restrictive city zoning allows private clubs, social clubs, lodges and theaters, so religious groups should also be permitted to meet within the town’s business district.
Lastly, they emphasized, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) prohibits discrimination against religious groups by use of city zoning and land use regulations.
If you were the judge would you rule the city’s zoning ordinance illegally discriminates against religious organizations seeking to locate with the business district?
The judge said yes!
Religious organizations such as these two synagogues have legal standing to challenge the city’s prohibition against their locating within the business district while allowing private clubs, lodges, and theaters within the same district, the judge began.
Requiring these synagogues to locate only within a residential zone, where appropriate sites are not available, creates a substantial burden, he continued.
The federal RLUIPA says, “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution,” the judge noted.
By prohibiting religious assemblies within its business district, while allowing clubs, lodges and theaters, the city violated constitutional Free Exercise requirements of neutrality, the judge emphasized.
“Congress sought, through RLUIPA, to protect religious land uses from discriminatory processes used to exclude or otherwise limit the location of churches and synagogues in municipalities across the country,” he added.
“To deny equal treatment to a church or synagogue on the grounds it conveys religious ideas is to penalize it for being religious. Such unequal treatment is impermissible based on the precepts of the Free Exercise, Establishment, and Equal Protection Clauses (of the U.S. Constitution),” the judge ruled.
The city is ordered to allow religious assemblies within its business district, the judge concluded.
Based on the 2004 U.S. Court of Appeal decision in Midrash Sephardi Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 Fed.3d 1214.
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