While awaiting a Maryland court ruling on a stay to stop demolition on an $800,000 addition to the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Towson and Goucher, Friends of Lubavitch, Inc., which owns the embattled property at 14 Aigburth Road, filed suit Dec. 20 in federal court against Baltimore County citing religious discrimination. Additional plaintiffs in the suit include Rabbi Mendy Rivkin and his wife, Sheiny Rivkin, who run the Chabad center.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the suit also includes students as plaintiffs and “is designed to preserve the rights of Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College to engage in religious exercise and observance of the Jewish faith,” the suit reads.
In the suit, filed by FOL’s attorneys Nathan Lewin and David Felsen, the plaintiffs claim that Baltimore County officials falsely accused Rabbi Rivkin of violating local zoning regulations when he applied for a permit to build the addition onto the Rivkins’ home. The county, after two years of legal proceedings, ordered the addition demolished.
The suit requests an injunction to stop the demolition and to allow the property to be used for its intended purpose of religious exercise. The suit also requests compensation for costs accrued by the plaintiffs while obtaining the building permit and for personal injuries suffered from “improper and unjustified attacks on their character and their conduct.”
The suit cites the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. RLUIPA land-use provisions “protect individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The suit names Baltimore County, the county planning department, county board of appeals and the county circuit court as defendants.
Lewin said via email that no request for action from the federal court is being made until after the Maryland court rules on the application for the demolition stay, which is being scheduled for a brief hearing not earlier than Jan. 7.
“In case an injunction from the federal judge is needed at that time [to stop the demolition], the federal case will be in a posture that we can promptly seek an order from the federal court,” he said.
This is not the first time Chabad has resorted to invoking the RLUIPA law in a zoning dispute. In spring of 2017, Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian-speaking Jews, filed a federal suit citing religious discrimination in his efforts to build a synagogue in the 8400 block of Stevenson Road in Pikesville.
See related story, “Too Far in Towson? Jewish center faces demand to demolish.”