Monday, April 5, 2010

Rabbi Upsets Town with Synagogue Plans

In Milburn New Jersey, Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky in the process of applying for building permits in order to build a 16.000-square-foot, 144-seat Dutch colonial style synagogue and social center with a parking site for 50 cars. As one of the 4,000 emissaries of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hasidic group, Rabbi Bogomilsky has been conducting his religious services out of the two homes he personally owns because the township of Milburn does not have an Orthodox house of worship. He has been able to draw in 30-40 worshipers on the Sabbath and 150 on the High Holy Days. The neighborhood began complaining about the overwhelming number of vehicles flooding the streets and other disturbances to the neighborhood’s tranquility and sued in order to stop the services. The state judge urged the parties to settle the matter themselves. As a result, the town did not make Rabbi Bogomilsky pay the potential $500,000 in fines and in return Rabbi Bogomilsky agreed to seek an actual synagogue elsewhere. However, little did the town realize that this would lead to his development plans of tearing down his houses and creating his own synagogue in the middle of the neighborhood.

Neighbors are banding together and calling themselves “Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township” in order to protest the development plans. Despite the fact that approximately 1/3 of the town is of the Jewish faith, many residents who are Jewish are joining in the movement against Rabbi Bogomilsky. They argue that the building of this synagogue will not only disrupt the peace by being located in the middle of the neighborhood but they also fear that it will not just be a place of worship. They believe the central issue is that a synagogue on a small plot within the neighborhood could allow for other business, such as day care centers or shelters, to do the same.
This is a classic example of someone pushing a law to the extreme. I do not believe it was the original intent of the law to have an entire congregation held within a personal home. If this case is advanced through the court system, I believe the court would rule in favor of the community because of the precedent set forth in Braunfield v. Brown, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Pennsylvania Sunday closing laws because it was seen as the state’s best interest to promote a peaceful day of relaxation.

Legally, Rabbi Bogomilsky has the right to host prayer services in his home because of a recent New Jersey case law that upheld this right. However, when Rabbi Bogomilsky starts applying for the zoning permits to begin construction, he is now involving the state is his plan. If the state approves the zoning permits, it could be argued by those who are against the building plans that it would further allow for the establishment of a town religion by other businesses following the same footsteps of the synagogue. On the flip side it also could be argued by those who are in favor of the building permits that by not approving the building permits it would be directly hindering the religion because there is not an Orthodox house of worship within the town. However, the people of Millburn are not protesting the idea of building a synagogue but rather the location of it. By ruling against Rabbi Bogomilsky’s building plans, it would not be a case of discrimination because the issue is not that a place of worship is being built but rather that a place of worship is being built in middle of where people live and raise their families. The community would probably protest the same if a Wal-Mart was being built in the exact location.


michael said...

You need to find out more before commenting. Millburn has 11 houses of worship, all in the middles of residential zones (where the zoning code calls for them to be), only 6 on 3 acres, 5 on less than 3 acres. A church got a variance in 2008 to expand although it had less than 1 acre and zero parking. check out

Justin M said...

Despite the zoning laws or the history of building places of worship in residential areas, I agree with the author that there is no religious discrimination in this case. The residents of the town have the right to protests the construction of the synagogue in their neighborhood in the same way they have the right to protest any other construction. It seems reasonable to suggest that if the creation of this structure would cause a disturbance to the peace of this neighborhood then the Rabbi should attempt to find a more suitable piece of property. (if available) In short, the issue is not if there is a history of building in residential areas but rather, if a religion would be directly discriminated against by not being allowed to build in a certain area. The facts given suggest that there is no religious discrimination in this case.

Jessica B said...

I think this is another case of a situation being merely unfair. The fact that there are other houses of worship built among residential homes in this town does not take away the right of those living in the neighborhood to protest the construction. It is possible that the residents of those neighborhoods supported the building of said church/temple/synagog. The author discusses that the parking lot would only hold 50 cars, leaving about 100 sprawled among the neighborhood on the high holidays. I agree that the state has a compelling interest in maintaining the peace of the neighborhood and its traffic. The fact that there is no law prohibiting the worshippers from praying in the Rabbi's home or to build a synagog on more suitable land presents no interference of free exercise. You must also consider those whom may just feel uncomfortable living near a house of worship, with the right to feel so. Although inconvenient, the Rabbi should put his efforts into finding a more suitable place to build this temple or looking into holding services in a building of a private, Jewish organization such as a JCC.

Rob K said...

I would have to agree with the previous posts that there are no religious discrimination claims that can be made in this situation. What I find interesting is the out-of-court settlement made between the town and the Rabbi, and his apparent disregard for the compromises made. While I do not claim to know the exact circumstances or stipulations of the settlement, it seems as though he was to find a different area to build his synagogue, which he is not doing in this case. I would think that if anyone might have legal standing here, it would be the town bringing further suit against the Rabbi.

michael said...

Let's not make speculation and restatement of previously held beliefs replace the legal issues of this story, let alone the facts of the case.

A rabbi and 30-40 local residents are holding prayer meetings in a private home weekly, the numbers jump to about 150 on the high holidays. Other local residents do not like the fact that services are being held in a private home. The town sues in response to neighbors' complaints, and the prayer group agrees to file an application for a zoning variance from the local rule requiring 3 acres for houses of worship.
The town never issues an actual zoning violation. Is government correct to take the side of those protesting against a constitutionally protected activity? Does government have police powers to enforce noise or parking ordinances without bringing to bear the chilling effect of the state bringing suit against private citizens? Are these actions by municipal government violative of federal statute (RLUIPA)? Other residents have the right to protest and petition government, but government must not appear to favor or disfavor religion. These are some of the broader issues.

It would be helpful to know if other houses of worship in Millburn Township have people parking all over the residential neighborhoods in which they are located, and do they have sufficient buffers between themselves and neighboring properties? How many are located on 3 acre lots, and what is the rationale for that size? By passing ordinances that make it nearly impossible for new religious uses to establish themselves, does government discriminate against minority religions, and express a preference for existing religious groups?

The original poster did not accurately summarize the NY Times story. The rabbi did not agree to seek a synagogue elsewhere, the agreement was to apply for a variance for that same location. Vehicles were not "flooding the streets". In fact, the town's three-year police surveillance showed between 4-7 cars each weekend on average. Houses of worship are permitted in residential zones in Millburn, other commercial uses (Walmart!) are not.

E.Levy said...

While there’s not much more that can be said that the previous posts haven’t already covered, I think it is interesting to take a second and look at this situation from an economic perspective. It is actually a well documented fact that having synagogues, and I say synagogues in particular because Jews are often the minority, in well nested rural areas, actually raises property value due to the proximity factor. The problem is though that in this case it doesn’t seem like there’s enough land to self contain the facility, pretty much reversing the economic implications. One would think there would exist enough of a state interest to preserve property value in this community to prevent Rabbi Bogomilsky from erecting a synagogue here.

Shannon H. said...

I think this is an excellent example of why laws should not be bent for religious organizations in the first place. If there really are other religious structures on less than 3 acres of land, the city should of course be forced to allow the rabbi to build his synagogue in the neighborhood. However, I believe the appropriate thing would have been to strictly follow the 3 acres rule in order to prevent situations such as this from arising. The article left me wondering about the motivations of Rabbi Bogomilsky—are there no other lots large enough in the area? Or is he just trying to prove a point? I personally would not want to build a house of worship in a neighborhood where it was clearly not welcome.

LaurenL said...

I agree with Shannon; I don't understand why the synagogue has to be in that exact location. And I have to agree that it seems as if he's certainly trying to prove a point. Knocking down both of his homes? Although we don't know all of the minor details of the case, I would have to say that the neighbors have a right to be upset about the rabbi's plans for building a synagogue in their neighborhood.