A U.S. District Court judge denied an appeal challenging the dismissal of a religious discrimination lawsuit filed against Baltimore County by Friends of Lubavitch, the organization that operates a Jewish outreach program in Towson.
The group asserted in 2018 that the county discriminated against it when a county Circuit Court judge ruled that an addition of the Chabad house in Towson’s Aigburth Manor neighborhood was illegal because it violates county zoning code and had to be torn down.
U.S. District Court Judge George L. Russell III in September 2019 threw out the lawsuit. The religious organization had not provided enough facts to support its claim of religious discrimination, he wrote, or “any consistent pattern of actions” by the county adversely affecting the Friends of Lubavitch or similar groups.
Nathan Lewin, an attorney representing Friends of Lubavitch in the religious discrimination case, filed a motion for the court to reconsider that order.
Lewin sought to challenge that claim with an amended complaint, but Russell this month declined to accept it, writing in a Sept. 1 opinion the religious organization failed to follow proper court procedure when they submitted their request; summaries of draft amendments, which were included as part of the Friends of Lubavitch’s request, were “so broad that they fail to adequately apprise the Court of Plaintiffs’ allegations,” Russell wrote.
Russell also denied Lewin’s request that the court reconsider dismissing the case, a decision supported by Baltimore County and the Circuit Court, which in February said the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration would fail to “correct a clear error of law” or account for new evidence that wasn’t available previously.
Lewin said he has already asked to have until Dec. 1 to file another request to submit an amended complaint and motion to reconsider the dismissal.
“We still believe, although this is taking some time, that it’s important to continue this litigation,” Lewin said. “And we will do so.”
“We are hopeful and look forward to resolving the case with the county, hopefully sometime soon, so we won’t have to fight them in court,” Rabbi Menachem “Mendy” Rivkin, who lives in the Chabad house with his wife and children, wrote in an emailed response.
The ongoing legal battle over whether a 4,000-square foot addition that tripled the size of the Chabad house can remain or must be torn down has stirred the Aigburth community since at least 2016. The Chabad group wants to keep its expansion and argues that it’s used for community building and Jewish education, especially for students at Towson University and Goucher College.
In the discrimination lawsuit, Friends of Lubavitch say demolishing the addition would deprive Jewish students of their rights to engage in religious observance on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays and to study religious texts.
The Jewish organization is also roiled in a lengthy appeals process for a different lawsuit filed by Robin Zoll, along with the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson.
Robin Zoll, who lives directly next to the Chabad house and is the plaintiff of a separate lawsuit against the Friends of Lubavitch, called the discrimination lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.”
“This case had not any of the qualifications for a federal discrimination case,” said Zoll, a retired attorney who practiced criminal law. “It was ridiculous and a campaign against us in our case.”
Rivkin initially applied for a permit to build the addition as a parsonage in 2011, but his application was denied. In 2015, the same plan was submitted to the county to build an addition on a private home.
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That plan was subsequently approved, drawing the ire of Aigburth residents who said the house functions as a community outreach center for Jewish college students and thus violates county code; that assertion was supported in a decision by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.
“It didn’t comply with any of the rules,” Zoll said. “They were pretending it was a residence, which everyone knew it wasn’t.”
Neighbors — and the Circuit Court — have also asserted that the expansion violates a land-use covenant in the building’s deed requiring any building on the property to be set back farther than the addition.
Court decisions on several appeals over the years have reaffirmed not only the Chabad’s status as a community center, but also the violation of the setbacks.
Friends of Lubavitch, pursuant to Zoll’s lawsuit, was ordered by a Circuit Court judge in 2017 to tear down the structure because of the deed violations. Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox granted a request in 2018 to defer demolition, pending an appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The dismissed religious discrimination lawsuit does not carry direct legal implications for the ongoing appeal. Per Cox’s direction, the Friends of Lubavitch paid a $125,000 bond, the estimated cost of demolishing the expansion, amid the appeals process.
An opinion on the latest appeal, which was heard by the state’s highest court in February, has not yet been issued, Zoll said.