A Jewish center in the Sunshine State is continuing to fight a legal battle in the hopes of building a new synagogue -- and the bitter and longstanding disagreement is now turning into a groundbreaking religious liberty case.
The Chabad of East Boca Raton plans to build a $10 million, 18,000-square-foot synagogue and museum, yet Rabbi Ruvi New and his Jewish congregation have spent the past decade facing hiccups due to opposition toward their worship space.
"Enough is enough. It is past time to drop the legal shenanigans and let Boca Raton welcome the Chabad into the community," said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel at Becket, which represents the Chabad of Boca Raton. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that works to protect the freedom of expression for people of all faiths.
The religious liberty question has come into play because the prosecution believes the synagogue is receiving special treatment.
"The suit [against the city] claims that by allowing a single synagogue to be built on private land, the city is establishing the Jewish religion and discriminating against Christians," the Becket firm asserted. "But the city ordinance they are suing over requires equal treatment for all faiths to build houses of worship."
"They're trying to say that the Constitution stops the city from treating the Chabad fairly," Lori Windham, an attorney with Becket, said in a video produced by the firm. "I think it's a pretty big stretch to say that just because you allow a Chabad to be treated fairly, you're somehow establishing a religion."
The Chabad has won twice in court, but is back to fight at the appeals court level.
The Jewish Chabad currently meets in a small storefront. The group has been trying to secure a permanent space for 10 years.
A decade ago, "city staff advanced the issue by composing new definitions for permitted 'uses' under the definition of 'Places of Public Assembly' as then contained in the city's code of ordinances," according to the lawsuit -- all aimed at allowing the project to be completed.
"The lawsuit also claimed the synagogue would affect property values, cause traffic and parking woes and increase the risk of flooding on the barrier islands," according to a report from The Palm Beach Post.
City officials in Boca Raton approved plans in 2015 for the Chabad to construct a synagogue.
"Some neighborhood residents had concerns regarding the increase in traffic flow and density the Chabad project could bring to the sensitive barrier island site near single-family neighborhoods, the beach and the Palmetto Park Road bridge," The Sun Sentinel reported back in March 2015.
A planning and zoning board meeting was held to allow locals to voice their opinions prior to the city's approval.
"However, the proposal passed that Planning & Zoning Board hearing unanimously and there was not a single negative voice of complaint at the Chabad's reception on Sunday, which was attended by quite a few residents of the neighboring communities," the local newspaper added.
Since then, a New York attorney sued the city on behalf of a group that opposes the synagogue. Two city residents involved with the suit first pushed back legally against the city in February 2016, saying Boca Raton officials gave special treatment to the Jewish group.
City residents Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall both live less than a mile from the planned construction site. They say the zoned area on which the Chabad wishes to build was meant for single-family residential use -- and that those involved "secretly planned" a change in the "permitted use."
"This ugly attempt to turn a disagreement about zoning into a federal lawsuit sets a dangerous precedent, harmful to everyone in Florida," Blomberg said. "The attack on the synagogue here threatens houses of worship everywhere."
But in defense of the synagogue construction, a 2008 zoning law "gave all houses of worship equal rights to build," according to Becket.
Gagliardi and MacDougall appealed their case in April 2017; the case is pending.
Watch this video explainer below:
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Becket)