Collin County District Court Judge Jill Willis ruled that the members of a small Orthodox Jewish community, the Far North Dallas Congregation of Toras Chaim, have the right to continue meeting in a Plano home for private worship. She made the decision on Wednesday, February 4, 2014.
In the case, Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Justin Butterfield had contended that Congregation Toras Chaim was protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law designed to protect religious liberties from zoning rules and the companion Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The judge agreed.
Last year, the Jewish families were sued by David Schneider, who is a neighbor. He lives across the street from the congregation. He was also the Homeowner’s Association (HOA) president and the HOA got involved in the lawsuit against the Orthodox Jewish community for practicing their faith in a residential home.
In the courthouse, Schneider told reporters that he disagreed with Willis’ ruling based on RLUIPA and RFRA. In the courtroom, he stated that he believed those statutes only applied to governmental entities.
After the ruling, Butterfield told reporters, “Today, we are thankful that the District Court upheld these members’ religious liberty rights. We are grateful that these Jewish families will no longer be under attack for exercising their right to worship God as prescribed by the tenets of their faith.”
Butterfield highlighted the underlying significance of the favorable decision. “It shows how much we value religious liberty in America since its founding,” he told reporters.
Rabbi Yaakov Rich of Congregation Toras Chaim told Breitbart Texas he was so grateful for the judge’s ruling. “We now have the ability to practice freely in the neighborhood. There are just so many families who are residents in the neighborhood who would have been devastated. For the Orthodox Jewish families who walk to the synagogue, it’s such a blessing.” He also thanked the Liberty Institute and Haynes & Boone.
The Plano-based Liberty Institute defended the Jewish community’s right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. It is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in the United States. Attorneys from Haynes & Boone also volunteered to work on the case. All the lawyers provided their services pro-bono to Congregation Toras Chaim.
“We are thankful that this distressing season has ended with a favorable ruling, protecting our right to worship. I am incredibly grateful that Liberty Institute successfully defended our case, and that the law has upheld our right to live out our faith within our homes. I pray that today marks the beginning of a new era of tolerance and peace in our community, ” the rabbi added.
Congregation Toras Chaim had met in private homes for several years before Schneider filed a lawsuit in late 2013. Later, Schneider was elected president of the Homeowners Association (HOA) and dragged the HOA into his lawsuit.
After the ruling, Schneider told reporters that he could not speculate on the determination of an appeal until other results regarding other related matters in the case are resolved. He was referring to a motion that Judge Willis will make on Friday, February 6 regarding the non-profit property owners’ association.
A small group of neighborhood residents challenged whether or not the HOA board of directors and the HOA attorney had the authority to represent the neighborhood in this case at all. In January, this group claimed that the majority of property owners voted for the neighborhood to drop the lawsuit. The residents filed a motion to intervene in the case, alleging that the lawsuit was against the wishes of the HOA. Attorney David Surratt, who represented the HOA, was also present in the courtroom.
Later Rabbi Rich told reporters that it has been a quite trying time. “Last Passover, we thought the doors would be closed.” He noted that he found himself giving sermons to “give the congregation strength to carry on.”
He emphasized that the final victory will come once the whole neighborhood comes together following this decision.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.