Appeals court revives Connecticut synagogue suit

AP News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2014 3:11 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A federal appeals court has reinstated a Jewish group's lawsuit accusing the Litchfield Historic District Commission of religious discrimination when it rejected plans for a synagogue in 2007.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals in New York City ruled Friday that federal Judge Janet C. Hall in New Haven was wrong to dismiss the lawsuit by Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut. The panel said Hall erred by ruling that part of a federal law barring government interference in religious exercise didn't apply to the case.

The appeals court panel, however, upheld Hall's other rulings in the case, including her dismissals of Chabad Lubavitch's claims that its constitutional rights to freedom of religion and equal protection were violated.

The Historic District Commission ruled Chabad Lubavitch's proposed 17,000-square-foot addition to an 1870s Victorian house, which would be used as a synagogue and a residence for its rabbi, was too large and out of character for the local historic district, under state law governing historic districts.

Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach of Chabad Lubavitch disputed the commission's 17,000-square-foot figure, saying it included the basement and attic. He said the footprint of the two-story house and addition would be less than 4,000 square feet and the total area of the project should be listed as less than 8,000 square feet.

Eisenbach said he was optimistic that plans for the addition ultimately would be approved.

"It's right before Rosh Hashana and ... there's no greater blessing for the community than to start off the new year with this great news," he said.

C. Scott Schwefel, a lawyer for the Historic District Commission, said the case will return to U.S. District Court and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible.

"We're confident that the District Court ... will determine that there is still no genuine issue of material facts and will again dismiss the action," he said.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hasidic movement within orthodox Judaism. The Litchfield group set up in northwestern Connecticut in 1996 and now includes social service, educational and arts programs.

Last year, the Historic District Commission and the local zoning board approved Chabad Lubavitch's plans to use the same 19th-century, 2,600-square-foot house near the Litchfield Green for its activities without expanding it.