Connecticut Jewish Group Stuck In Zoning Deadlock

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A decade after President Clinton signed a law giving religious groups more power to challenge local zoning, many are doing just that to get around rules that prohibit houses of worship in certain zones. A Connecticut Jewish organization is stuck in a zoning deadlock with the city of Hartford and a bunch of angry neighbors.


Now, a case of faith and zoning. In Hartford, Connecticut, an Orthodox Jewish group wants to run a religious center for nearby university students. Neighbors don't want it there, and the city wants it shut down.

As Jeff Cohen from member station WNPR reports, the argument could be decided by a relatively new federal law, one that offers some protection for religious groups.

JEFF COHEN: Bloomfield Avenue is studded by huge homes from the early 1900s and beyond. It's also a busy street linking the city of Hartford with its suburban neighbors. And a few steps from here are a private school, a Unitarian church, the University of Hartford, and this new neighbor - a Chabad house, a place for Jewish university students to pray, celebrate and learn.

Rabbi Yosef Kulek says he doesn't want to be disruptive.

Rabbi YOSEF KULEK: I would estimate that this neighbor is about 75, a hundred feet away, give or take. I would think that whatever happens, whatever we do, I think we are good, quiet neighbors.

COHEN: Not if you ask the neighbors.

Kathleen Sullivan and her husband don't want to be next to a student center -Jewish or otherwise. It doesn't have to be Animal House to be a problem. Sullivan says even the infrequent, run-of-the-mill college student gatherings stick out in a residential neighborhood.

Ms. KATHLEEN SULLIVAN: They're kids. There's a lot of noise. There's a lot of singing and dancing and screaming, and that's a big change from what we're used to.

COHEN: They and neighbor Stu Cooper also don't like the suggestion that to be against the Chabad house is to be against Jews.

Mr. STU COOPER: I am Jewish, and I am certainly not anti-Semitic. And this is strictly a zoning issue. It is not a religious issue.

COHEN: But it's a legal issue. The city of Hartford says local zoning doesn't permit the Chabad house. And the case is in federal court, where Chabad is arguing that the city wants to keep it out because of its religion.

To do that, Chabad is using a 10-year-old federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law was designed to overcome religious discrimination in local zoning.

Marc Stern is associate general counsel for American Jewish Committee. He helped write the law and says it's been useful for small, less established religious groups moving into old, well-established communities.

Mr. MARC STERN (Associate General Counsel, American Jewish Committee): It's why Lubavitcher Chabad is so often in court, why Pentacostalist churches are so often in court, because these are relatively new churches on the American scene and certainly in the suburbs. And it's they who are trying to break the status quo, and they who are excluded by the zoning laws, not the churches who have been there for 150 years.

COHEN: And Stern says the law has worked, making it easier for houses of worship to open where they weren't before.

But Marci Hamilton says the law ignores the concerns of neighbors who don't want to live next to a church or a church dance hall or anything like them. Hamilton teaches at the Cardozo School of Law.

Professor MARCI HAMILTON (Cardozo School of Law): It never occurred to anybody in the process that homeowners were going to get slammed by inappropriate uses next door to their homes.

COHEN: And she says this creates real animosity.

Prof. HAMILTON: Because the homeowners will repeatedly say: We are not objecting because of your religion. We're objecting because of your dance hall. And the religious group comes back and says: But this is our religious mission.

Rabbi JOSEPH GOPIN: We see our mission as to educate our youth about their heritage, about their religion, about Jewish philosophy.

COHEN: Chabad leader Rabbi Joseph Gopin says to do that means being near the university students it serves.

As for the federal law that prohibits religious discrimination in local zoning, it has survived numerous challenges in court.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.

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