A controversial zoning law in the Montreal neighborhood of Outremont that could stifle growth of the area’s Orthodox community will remain on the books after a referendum vote held this past Sunday.
The measure effectively bans the construction of all “houses of worship” in the area. A final tally of votes registered 1,561 for the law and 1,202 against, representing a little over 60 percent of eligible voters.
Many activists and observers have expressed alarm over the bylaw, identifying it as a thinly veiled attempt to limit the Orthodox community’s exponential growth in the area, despite claims by local officials that the move is intended to increase retail business in the borough.
Mayer Feig, part of a team of activists who worked to defeat the bylaw, expressed disappointment. However, they were encouraged by a higher than expected turnout of individuals opposing the law.
“We are definitely not happy about the result, but can’t say we are disappointed with the turnout. In the end, we were able to rally quite a bit of support from the non-Jewish community as well. They came out to stand up for us, and that is comforting,” he said.
The measure was approved by the town’s council last May, but in early September activists opposing the changes were successful in obtaining enough signatures from residents to put the law up for a referendum.
Mr. Feig said that the community is presently in the process of bringing a legal challenge to the law.
“It’s clearly unconstitutional to make a complete ban on all houses of worship in a neighborhood,” he said. “Civil rights exist specifically for us to be able to challenge these types of issues.”
Outremont is an upscale neighborhood of Montreal that is home to many of the city’s prominent political, business and cultural figures and is mainly French-speaking. It has also grown into a center of Orthodox life. Of the borough’s 25,000 residents, one quarter of them are Orthodox, mostly Chassidim.
However, the district contains only four shuls. For some time, houses of worship have been restricted from operating on residential streets; a string of bylaws passed since 1999 has slowly blocked construction on various commercial thoroughfares as well. The present bylaw will now block efforts to build on the last street open to construction of new shuls.
The office of Outremont’s mayor, Marie Cinq-Mars, declined a request from Hamodia for comment on the issue.
Julius Grey, a Montreal-based constitutional lawyer who is representing the Jewish community in their legal challenge, told Hamodia that the conflict in Outremont is not based on anti-Semitism per se but rather stems from what he termed “militant secularism.” He is presently representing a Muslim group facing a similar legal battle.
“Under our Charter of Rights today, there is no religion that takes precedence in our country, but that does not mean that religion has to disappear,” he said. “You don’t have to remove anybody else’s turban or kippah to preserve your own secular lifestyle.”
He said that Canadian law does permit for limits to be placed on the construction of houses of worship, but that the Supreme Court has ruled that these laws must not be “too onerous” for religious groups. Mr. Grey felt that given the inability of Orthodox Jews to drive to shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov, the present law violates that litmus test and should be struck down by the courts.
Mindy Pollack is the only Orthodox member of Outremont’s five-person council. She is also the co-founder of “Friends of Hutchinson,” a group that facilitates dialogue between the Orthodox community and other residents of the district. She said that the mayor and other council members had rebuffed overtures to negotiate a compromise and she bemoaned what she saw as the divisive result.
“It’s unfortunate that they took this approach,” she told Hamodia. “In the future I hope the borough takes a better approach and talks to people to find solutions to problems rather than creating bigger ones.”
Updated Monday, November 21, 2016 at 9:00 pm with additional quotes from community leaders