On Thursday, December 20, 2018, with the help of respected constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin, Chabad filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore County, calling out a pattern of unlawful actions it took against Chabad Rabbi Mendy and Sheiny Rivkin and the Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
The lawsuit comes after county courts refused to overturn the unprecedented court demolition order on Chabad’s $800,000 extension, which serves local college students. The suit details how Baltimore County officials falsely stated that the Chabad House was in violation of zoning laws, claiming that it was serving not as a “residence,” but as a “community center,” a term that does not exist in Baltimore zoning laws. A county spokesperson had even gone so far as to state that “should the Chabad continue to host Friday night dinners [at Rabbi Rivkin’s home] in violation of the board’s decision, the County is prepared to enforce the board’s order.” Rabbi Rivkin is the only rabbi in Towson, but in this draconian reality, hosting people at his home for Shabbat dinner is somehow outlawed and punishable, perhaps even by having his home torn down.
County Defamed Rabbi and Violated the Religious Land Use Act, Says Nathan Lewin
According to the lawsuit, the county illegally invoked inapplicable zoning regulations to impede the rights of the Rivkins, students at Towson and Goucher, and Friends of Lubavitch, Inc., by filing an unjustified “violation” against the Chabad House and dragging it into repetitive unjustified zoning hearings in order to obtain a building permit for a needed extension of its building. The outrageous process culminated in a county court order directing that the $800,000 extension, completed in early 2017, be demolished.
“The county’s actions egregiously violated federal law and the rights of the Rivkins and Jewish students, who were able to observe Jewish practices only because of the availability of a nearby Chabad House,” Lewin said, the lead attorney representing Chabad of Towson. “Baltimore County has sought by various illegal means to burden, obstruct, and suppress Jewish religious observance in Towson by delaying and now demolishing the premises where such religious exercise is made possible.”
Baltimore County Currently Has the Most Religious Discrimination Cases Filed Against a Single County Nationwide
Baltimore County and Towson, in particular, have some previous issues concerning discrimination, both racial and religious. Historically, Towson used covenants and “Gentlemen’s Agreements” to keep blacks and Jews out. Today, Baltimore County is still largely a segregated county with a good deal of pending or settled lawsuits alleging religious discrimination for violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The function of the Towson Chabad House and “Chabad Houses” at University’s Nationwide
The Rivkins founded Chabad of Towson in 2008, opening their home and family to the student populations at Towson University and Goucher College and other Jews in the area.
Their “Chabad House” serves as a “home away from home” for Jewish students and others in the neighborhood and provides religious hospitality and home-based Jewish observances, including Shabbat and holiday meals and celebrations. From the day the property was purchased and the Rivkins moved into it, the Chabad House has been open to students for Jewish observance and Torah teaching. The owner of the property (Friends of Lubavitch, Inc.), the Rivkins, and the students reasonably expected from the outset that the property would be used for religious exercise. Just as many Chabad Houses on university campuses are classified for zoning purposes as “residences,” Towson Chabad House always was, and continues to be, a “residence.”
According to the lawsuit, the county defamed Rabbi Rivkin with erroneous and baseless statements and illegally invoked inapplicable zoning regulations to impede the rights of the Rivkins. Baltimore County permit and zoning officers asserted erroneously that the property, which is the home of the only rabbi in Towson, was a synagogue or a community center. These false claims besmirched the reputations of the Rivkins by claiming that by hosting students for meals at their home, they were breaking the law. Relying on Baltimore County’s false allegations that “FOL has been using the property without obtaining necessary approvals or complying with regulations,” a Circuit Court judge has rejected the recommendation of a court-appointed receiver and decreed that the expansion built on the property must be “razed.”
“Baltimore County was clearly out to get the Rivkins, using zoning as an excuse to try and run them out of town,” said David Firestone, a Baltimore resident who is familiar with the case. “It’s a university Chabad House, not a synagogue and not a community center. The county fabricated bureaucratic rules to make life difficult for Chabad and for the Rivkins, in order to prevent Jewish religious observance at Towson and Goucher.”
It’s widely known that the central role of the Chabad House at Towson University and of Chabad Houses on college campuses nationwide is to create a Jewish familial atmosphere for students, as is highlighted in a 2016 independent study on Chabad on Campus and as noted by New York Times commentator David Brooks, among others. County officials lied about the Chabad House in an effort to run Chabad out of Towson, a clear violation of the Rivkin’s constitutional rights and of the RLUIPA.