JudicialLocal NewsHouston Synagogue Sues City, Claiming Selective Enforcement of Land-Use Laws

The synagogue claims the city has targeted them by enforcing a law that could apply to other untouched businesses in the neighborhood.
April 7, 2021
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One Houston neighborhood is home to a paper shop, a hair salon, a law firm, a wig stylist, and a small Orthodox Jewish congregation that meets in a home. In the summer of 2020, the city only cracked down on one for breaking a deed restriction that limits the neighborhood to residential-only use.

Now, the Heimish Synagogue is suing the City of Houston, claiming it enforced its laws selectively.

The Orthodox Jewish congregants of Heimish are bound by their faith to worship within a small geographic zone called an eruv at a place within walking distance of their homes. Heimish settled on a residential home over two years ago in one of Houston’s eruvs. The neighborhood they chose is restricted by deed to residential use only, and the homeowner’s association met with a rabbi from the synagogue on July 1, 2020, to discuss their presence before ultimately choosing to let them congregate.

Later that month, the City of Houston sent a letter to Heimish ordering them to stop worshiping on the property and threatening them with fines and legal action.

“The City’s actions are illegal and unfair,” said Justin Butterfield, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom advocacy group aiding the synagogue.

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“Hundreds of thousands of Americans meet every day in small groups for prayer meetings, Bible studies, book clubs, card games, and other gatherings. Why would Houston stop this small, Jewish congregation from legally doing likewise?”

The synagogue is fighting back under state and federal laws that prevent local governments from substantially burdening the faith practices of their citizens.

One is the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), which states that “a government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.” It does not apply if the government agency shows that applying “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” The City of Houston has not yet filed a response to show what interest, such as traffic or health safety, their enforcement would achieve.

The TRFRA echoes another law in United States code almost word for word that forbids governments from “impos[ing] a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” with the same exception for the “furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.”

Since the city has yet to file an answer, it remains unclear why it targeted Heimish. Local residents say the synagogue has created a traffic nuisance.

“The property is not well-maintained and the trash from Shabbat services lies on our lawn Sunday mornings. The cars that drive to the synagogue – upwards of 10-15 twice a day – block our driveways, trash cans on trash days and mailboxes. Cars also are parked facing the wrong way on the street,” claims Shelley Kohr, who says she lives across the street from Heimish.

“Jews and non-Jews alike support Heimish’s right to exist and never have said or acted otherwise. We welcome additional synagogues, kosher restaurants, grocery stores and always have. The property could house Joe’s AC Service, offices, or any other business and the issue would be the same.”

Though the state did not shut down churches for health protocols, local officials closed certain religious groups in scattered incidents across Texas, from churches in McKinney to faith-based schools in Cameron County. Many churches, mosques, and other religious organizations closed voluntarily as the pandemic’s first wave swelled. At a committee meeting in the Texas House to discuss bills meant to address these shutdowns, a representative from the City of Dallas argued that cities should retain the power to close faith-based organizations for the sake of enforcing important safety codes.

Update: This article has been updated to include remarks from Kohr.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.