Towson Chabad files federal lawsuit against Baltimore County, alleging religious discrimination

The operators of a Jewish outreach program in Towson have filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore County, claiming the county discriminated against them when it ruled an expansion of their Chabad house was illegal and must be torn down.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court, alleges that decisions by the county government, its Board of Appeals and the Circuit Court all violate the Chabad’s constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

The lawsuit comes weeks before a court-ordered deadline that would start the process of demolishing the expanded Chabad house, an outreach program for Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College operated by the Hasidic organization Friends of Lubavitch.

In the lawsuit, Friends of Lubavitch allege that if the demolition takes place, “Jewish students will be deprived of their rights a) to engage in religious observance on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays, b) to partake of festive kosher meals, c) to join in Jewish prayer and traditional Jewish observances, and d) to study Jewish religious texts.”

Baltimore County Attorney Michael Field declined to comment Thursday, saying he had not yet seen the complaint.

Chabad is suing the county under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that seeks to prevent discrimination against religious groups in land use and zoning cases. Under the law, jurisdictions cannot use zoning rules to “unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions or structures.”

Four other congregations in the county — Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries and ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue — also have filed federal lawsuits alleging Baltimore County officials discriminated against them in denying requests to build new worship facilities in violation of the federal act.

In the Towson case, Chabad attorney Nathan Lewin said the county violated the act by making the Hasidic Jewish organization “jump through 20 different hoops” to get a building permit, and issued erroneous zoning citations at substantial cost to the organization.

Chabad of Towson and Goucher moved into Aigburth Manor, a neighborhood near Towson University, in 2008 when Friends of Lubavitch bought a house at 14 Aigburth Road.

Rabbi Menachem “Mendy” Rivkin and his wife Sheina Rivkin moved into the existing house on the property and began outreach programs for Jewish college students from the two nearby campuses. Chabad, an international Jewish organization, frequently locates rabbis near college campuses to engage students in Jewish life.

In 2014, the Rivkins announced plans to expand the Chabad center, and in 2015 applied for a permit to build a parsonage on the property. After that was denied, they applied to expand the house, and received a county building permit to construct a 4,400-square-foot addition to the original 2,200-square-foot home. It was completed in 2016.

Neighbors filed legal challenges to the center, saying that while the county approved the addition as a private residence, it was also being used as Chabad of Towson and Goucher.

The Chabad has been locked in a legal battle ever since with neighbors and the county over zoning and land covenants.

Last month, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox affirmed earlier rulings that the expansion violated a land covenant and must be demolished, at the expense of the owners. She gave Chabad until mid-January to set aside funds to raze the building.

After that, Friends of Lubavitch supporters launched a social media campaign decrying the decision. In documents posted online, organizers likened the opposition to the expansion and the court rulings to Kristallnacht, an event in 1938 in which German Nazis torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes. Nearly 100 Jews were killed.

Aigburth Manor Association Vice President Paul Hartman disputed the argument that the order to raze the house was discriminatory. He said the community covenants are “religion-neutral.”

“The Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals have both ruled that the covenants are valid and that [the Chabad expansion] violated the covenants,” Hartman said. “I don’t see how they can argue that that’s not the case or that there’s some restriction to their religious liberty there.”

In the lawsuit, Friends of Lubavitch alleges that Baltimore County officials required Chabad to take part in unnecessary hearings and issued citations that were without merit. The suit also says officials falsely claimed Chabad was operating as a “community center” instead of a residence because the Rivkins were hosting students for Shabbat dinners and Jewish instruction.

The suit claims that “as a result of the false statements,” judges reviewing the cases “concluded that [Friends of Lubavitch] and Rabbi Rivkin were untrustworthy and had ‘unclean hands.’”

The suit says such gatherings are within the rights of residents of a home. It notes that many Chabads are operated out of rabbis’ homes, largely in residential areas.

“Nobody from Baltimore County even bothered to ask whether this is a standard procedure all over the country, all over the world,” Lewin said.

In addition to the federal lawsuit, Chabad also requested a stay of the demolition order pending an appeal of the Circuit Court ruling. A hearing on that request could be held in January.

This article has been updated to correct the square footage of the addition.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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