Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of American life, so much so that we frequently defer to houses of worship and other religious institutions, granting them exceptions from taxes and many workplace regulations. The freedom to worship as one pleases, enshrined in the First Amendment, is intimately linked with the freedoms of speech and of assembly, and we jealously fight encroachments on religious practice as the hallmarks of tyranny.
The right to own property and to punish its devaluing by the actions of others is an equally strong principle, fundamental to the idea of the social contract that underlies civil government: We individually sacrifice personal freedoms so the natural rights to, among others, safety and property.
It’s when such integral components of Western life stand opposed that we truly see the vibrancy of what it means to be an American. We’ve seen such debates play out in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi, where some are claiming religious rights in opposition to LGBT individuals claiming the rights of self- expression and, in the case of bathroom preferences, safety.
And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, we’re seeing another religious-rights debate play out right here in Baltimore, where the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue is heading to the county for yet another round in a land-use dispute with neighbors over its plans to set up shop on a 3-acre plot on Stevenson Road in Pikesville. On one side stands Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and the supporters of his Chabad-affiliated center for Russian-speaking Jews: They claim that both current zoning laws and a federal statute known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act trump the concerns of neighbors — many of them Jewish — who say they are worried about traffic and noise in the suburban neighborhood. But the opposition, which includes Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), maintains that they want to live in peace and never considered living next door to a synagogue when they purchased their homes.
On whose side you stand may betray your own religious proclivities, although even Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland and a veteran of his own land use litigation, recognizes that having a religious institution as a neighbor might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
“I can understand it,” he said of the opposition to Ariel. “It’s not that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t make it right.”
Kaplan summed up his thoughts with maybe the most American attitude of all: We’re a nation of laws.
At the end of the day, one party or the other is going to emerge from court — which may take many more months or even years — vindicated. The other will likely continue to feel aggrieved. The real question will come when the fervor has subsided: Will both sides embrace that equally American trait known as coexistence?