Friday, December 21, 2007

First The Verdict, Then The Trial

Suffering from a troublesome case of anti-Semitic indigestion, “pete” from West Hartford belched in the Hartford Courant commentary section attached to a story called “A Tangle Of Tensions, “go back to isreal (sic) and steal some more land, dirtbag (sic) troublemakers.”

The comment is a dramatic overstatement of some of the tensions underlying a decision of Litchfield’s Historic Commission to deny a Jewish orthodox religious group, Chabad Lubavich, permission to convert a “home” into a Jewish temple. The historic “home” on Litchfield’s pristine town green was gutted 40 years earlier and turned into a business, seriously compromising the “home’s” historical character.

Like the poor, anti-Semitism will always be with us. But in this particular case, a just decision between the competing claims of Chabad Lubavich and Litchfield’s Historic Commission very likely will be settled in court. The dispute, in any case, appears to be tending in that direction since the Historic Commission refused Chabad Lubavich’s petition on December 20th. The court, one may be sure, will render its decision based on the facts of the case, which have very little to do with the anti-Semitic hostilities of “pete” from West Hartford.

The Historic Commission objected to the clock tower that Chabad Lubavich wishes to add to the former “home” but would allow a finial bearing a Jewish star. Previously the commission objected to the addition of a Jewish star, but some observant commentators pointed out to the commission that there were no fewer than two Jewish stars blighting a nearby Methodist church on what is referred to in the town as “Church Row.”

The commission in a seven page declaration argued that the additions proposed were too large. While denying the application, the commission said it would welcome a new application only if Chabad Lubavich’s plans did not exceed 6,000 square feet.

There are, however, a number of buildings in the historic district that do not comply with the standard imposed by the commission on Chabad Lubavich. The proposed renovation of Town Hall, presently 7,884 square feet, would be expanded to 20,000-square-feet under current plans. The Town Hall is located directly across the street from the proposed Jewish temple.

The Jewish temple would share a neighborhood with Episcopalian, Methodist and Roman Catholic congregations, each of which occupies structures much larger than the space Chabad-Lubavitch needs to services its needs.

"We deliberately picked this site two years ago,” said Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach told the commission, “because we wanted to be at the center of religious worship in Litchfield and contribute to the life of the town.

"All the Chabad wants is to be treated like other religions, to be on church row and have a structure of equal size to those churches," Merriam said. "But the commission has denied us that right tonight, and there are many remedies under the law with which to proceed."

Chabad Lubavich’s lawyer, Peter Herbst, asked the Historic Commission, “

"I have to ask why, when the Historic District Commission is dealing with a constitutionally protected use such as the Chabad, rather than a nursing home … or town hall, which is not afforded similar protection under the Constitution, why would a different and more-difficult-to-meet standard be applied?"

That is a question the Historic Commission will not be able to dodge in a court proceeding.

Lawyers for Chabad Lubavich may be expected to argue in future court proceedings that the restrictions imposed by the Historic Commission place an undue burden on the religious organization’s First Amendment Rights. The protections afforded religious organizations under the U.S. Constitution are not all that ambiguous. The court cannot allow zoning regulations, rules promulgated by government agencies and dubious Historic Commission decisions to trump constitutional safeguards that courts themselves are sworn to protect and uphold.

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