Chabad of East Boca Raton, whose attempts to build an expanded shul and community center have been stymied by nearly 10 years of legal challenges, won the right to continue with its plans in a decision handed down by a Florida federal appeals court.
Several national Orthodox organizations had taken an interest and submitted briefs in the case as they felt the plaintiff’s arguments threatened laws protecting religious land use around the country.
The three judge panel steered clear of the cases’ broader implications, but unanimously declared the challenge to be “moot,” given that Chabad’s plans have been put on hold pending other unrelated litigation.
Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, a public-interest law firm that advocates for religious liberties and which is co-representing Chabad as interveners in the case alongside the City of Boca Raton, said that despite the technical grounds of the dismissal, the ruling has much value.
“Practically speaking, it shuts down litigation that sought not only to permanently prevent Chabad from building, but to repeal the city’s ordinance that gave houses of worship equal treatment; the court rejected both of those requests,” he told Hamodia.
The Chabad house, under the leadership of Rabbi Ruvi New, has been trying to build larger facilities for the past decade. In 2015, the city unanimously approved Chabad’s plans by making an adjustment to the zoning laws, broadening “places of assembly” to include “houses of worship” as well.
The city of Boca Raton was quickly hit with a lawsuit on behalf of residents Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall, who said they would be injured by the traffic they claim the shul would bring, as well as its likelihood of “alter[ing] the beach-oriented, relaxed, and low-intensity character of Seaside Village.” Their claims built on a wave of grassroots resistance that had vocally opposed Chabad’s plans at public meetings and online forums.
Several supporters of the Chabad argued that opposition was rooted in anti-Orthodox animus, and cited several large commercial entities in the vicinity, claiming that the construction of a shul was unlikely to be a major factor in the neighborhood’s congestion.
Their suit, which before coming before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had been rejected twice by lower courts, argued that Boca Raton had violated the Constitution’s establishment clause by directing city employees to find a way to accommodate Chabad’s plans. They claimed that even though the project was not active, the zoning change made for them was conceived as part of “illegal collusion” between Chabad and the city.
In a court hearing in February, the three-judge panel expressed skepticism over both the constitutional and technical arguments offered by attorney Marci Hamilton, who represented the plaintiffs. Mrs. Hamilton is a New York-based legal scholar with a history of advocating against the expansion of rights for religious groups.
A support brief by Agudath Israel of America, Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and several other groups had taken issue with the plaintiff’s case, arguing that “the First Amendment was never intended to make America inhospitable to religious practitioners.”
Despite the varied nature of the written and oral arguments, the court’s decision was made purely on the grounds that Mr. Gagliardi’s and Mrs. MacDougall’s case is not applicable, given the fact that Chabad’s plans are presently on hold. As such, should Chabad’s plans move forward, they would remain liable to a challenge based on the points left unaddressed by the court.
Rabbi Moshe Matz, executive director of Agudath Israel’s Florida division, welcomed the decision and hoped that it would mark an end to Chabad’s legal battles.
“We are very pleased that Chabad of Boca Raton has won this third round in court and will be able to operate a synagogue without further interference,” he said. “We hope that this ruling will send a message to localities throughout the country that federal law protects the rights of religious institutions to not be discriminated against in land-use decisions.”