guest blog by Deborah Goonan
About a month ago, I wrote about Congregation Toras Chaim (CTC). With the help of Liberty Institute, CTC prevailed in a lawsuit filed by their HOA with regard to a dispute over deed restrictions limiting HOA homes to “single family use.” Based upon two Texas laws protecting religious freedom, a Colin County judge threw out an HOA’s case against owners of a home used as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.
But that’s not the end of the story.
On March 2, 2015, the City of Dallas filed suit against CTC and the owners of the property at 7103 Mumford St, Mark B. and Judith D. Gothelf. The petition claims that the defendants have failed to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) required by the City of Dallas for all non-residential uses of property. The City insists that the property be brought into compliance with local ordinances before they will issue a CO for the property.
Specifically, the City explains:
“Currently, Defendants’ only permissible use of the Property is a single family use. Any other use of the Property that would require a CO [Certificate of Occupancy], such as the proposed use as a synagogue, without first obtaining a CO and complying 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.”
Curiously, the dispute over the CO and ordinance requirements stretches back to November 2013, not long after homeowner David R. Schneider filed his first lawsuit against the Gothelfs on the matter of deed restrictions in the McKamy IV and V HOA.
The City is now requiring that multiple modifications be made to the property, including adding 13 parking spaces, adding a firewall barrier between the first and second floors of the dwelling, and handicap accessible features including 2 wheelchair accessible restrooms on the first floor. The estimated cost to bring the Mumford Street home into compliance: roughly $200,000.
Attorneys from Liberty Institute, representing the Gothelfs and CTC have been back and forth with the City of Dallas for 18 months, initially arguing that the CTC is exempt from the City’s bureaucratic ordinance requirements based upon state and federal laws governing religious freedom. After all, they argue, the congregation of Orthodox Jewish families is smaller than most Christian Bible Study groups that meet in residential homes, without being required to comply with cost-prohibitive and unnecessary city codes.
The City claims they are within their legal rights to insist upon CO requirements, despite religious use status, state and federal law. The Congregation, through their attorney, then proposed a modification of their request, to ensure a maximum capacity of less than 50 occupants, but despite the good faith effort to compromise, the City has refused to back down on its requirements. In fact, every attempt of the CTC to compromise and avoid litigation has been rejected, or the City has changed the requirements yet again. The City now claims it will allow the defendants to formally request a special exception or variance, however if that request is denied, the modifications will have to be made within 14 days. If the deadlines are not met, CTC faces $1,000 per day fines for non-compliance.
According to the Rabbi, about 10 people attend daily religious study, and about 30 attend on the Sabbath, arriving on foot since their faith forbids driving on the Sabbath.
Also according to the Rabbi, the cost of extensive modifications combined with the cost of daily fines threatens the very existence of the Congregation. Its members would have to move to a different location within walking distance of their gathering place for weekly services.
Is it the City’s intent to protect religious freedom or to circumvent First Amendment rights by way of unreasonable enforcement of ordinances? And why has the City chosen to stop working with the Congregation and property owners now, on the heels of dismissal of the HOA’s case against them?
This battle for First Amendment rights is not over. The Liberty Institute has issued a statement that it plans to aggressively defend the religious rights of CTC.
“This outcome matters,” said Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Institute President & CEO.
“Any verdict that does not protect this congregation would be tragic. Not only for them, not only for Dallas, but for America. If small meetings by people of faith are not allowed in their homes, that would greatly damage religious freedom for all.”