Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America welcomed a ruling announced yesterday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit against the town of Surfside, Florida and in favor of two Orthodox Jewish synagogues.
The two congregations that brought suit — Young Israel of Bal Harbor and Congregation Midrash Sephardi — had rented space above a bank in the Surfside’s commercial district. Surfside’s zoning code permits private clubs, lodge halls, dance and music studios, and language schools in the commercial district, but excludes houses of worship. When threatened with eviction, the congregations sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) – a statute enacted in 2000 due to the intensive efforts of the UOJCA and other religious liberty advocates. The congregations were represented by noted constitutional attorney (and UOJCA board member) Nathan Lewin; and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice aggressively supported the congregations’ lawsuit.
The federal trial court ruled in favor of the city last year. Reversing that decision, the federal Court of Appeals today held that Surfside had violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision, which requires that religious assemblies be treated no less equally than “a non-religious assembly or institution.” By allowing private clubs such as a Masonic lodge, but yet barring the congregations, the Court of Appeals held that the city had violated RLUIPA. The court rejected Surfside’s claim that its private clubs contribute to the local economy in a manner that the synagogues did not. The court also rejected the city’s claim that RLUIPA exceeded Congress’ legislative authority, and its claim that RLUIPA’s goal of protecting houses of worship from discrimination violated the “separation of church and state.”
Nathan Diament – UOJCA director of public policy stated:
The Orthodox Jewish community is deeply gratified – as all Americans who cherish religious freedom should be — that the appeals court has rejected the use of zoning regulations as a tool of religious discrimination. We congratulate the congregations and attorney Nat Lewin on achieving a critical victory which will serve as a precedent for similar cases around the nation. And we applaud the U.S. Department of Justice which, under the leadership of President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft and Assistant Attorney General Acosta, has made the defense of religious liberty a top priority as evidenced by their active participation in this case.