Two years ago, leaders of a Chabad outpost in Towson, Md., expanded their home, hoping to make room to serve Jewish students at two nearby colleges.
County officials want to tear the addition down, saying the structure violates local zoning rules. A county court agreed and issued a demolition order.
On Thursday (Dec. 20), Chabad leaders filed suit in U.S. District Court, seeking $10 million in damages.
The Chabad suit is the fifth such action filed against Baltimore County over religious land use in the past two years. All accuse the county of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
The other cases involve a different Jewish group, Congregation Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, along with Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Hunt Valley. Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries Inc. also filed a federal complaint about the county’s zoning decisions.
The newest dispute stems from the 2016 expansion of the Chabad House, home to Rabbi Menachem Rivkin, his wife, Sheina, and their seven children. The house on Aigburth Road in Towson was purchased in 2008.
Like other Chabad outposts, the Rivkins’ offers meals and a Jewish Scripture study program to students at nearby schools — in this case, Towson University and Goucher College.
Nathan Lewin, the attorney representing the group, said county officials have tried to ban such activities in the past.
“Baltimore County officials made Rabbi Rivkin look like a lawbreaker,” Lewin said.
Ellen Kobler, a Baltimore County spokeswoman, told Religion News Service, “We decline to comment on this ongoing litigation.”
In October, the county sought bids for “outside RLUIPA counsel.” The county’s purchasing office said Dec. 21 that a contract for those legal services has not yet been awarded.
Court documents show that both religion and zoning law are at issue in the dispute, which has played out over the past two years.
In 2016, following a series of back-and-forth efforts with Baltimore County, construction began to expand the house from 2,200 square feet to its current 6,614-square-foot size.
After construction began, neighbors began to complain about the expansion, citing a 1950 covenant requiring structures in the neighborhood to be set back at least 115 feet from the curb. The Chabad House is roughly 62 feet from the street.
According to a press release from Chabad, county officials also claimed the Chabad House was a synagogue or community center rather than a residence.
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Source: Religion News Service