Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla.
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Searching for a house of worship
The Chabad of East Boca is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Florida that provides religious worship, outreach, and educational services. Like many other faith groups, it needed a house of worship for its congregation. After searching for years, the Chabad finally found the ideal location, took all the necessary steps to build, and – after a long series of public meetings – received unanimous city council approval to move forward. The approval came under a 2008 zoning law that gave all houses of worship equal rights to build.
But a small opposition group, led by a New York attorney, sued in federal court to stop the synagogue from being built. The lawsuit makes the bizarre claim that allowing a house of worship equal access to build on private land violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The Chabad beat the lawsuit twice in lower courts, but is still fighting on appeal to protect its right to exist.
A decade of opposition
In 2007, the Chabad began encountering hostile, well-organized, and well-financed opposition to its construction plans. And after the building was unanimously approved in 2015, two landowners hired a New York attorney – notorious for her opposition to religious civil rights laws – and filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent construction. The small group openly admitted that some of the opposition to the Chabad was driven by anti-Semitism. But they claimed that allowing the synagogue to be built discriminated against them as Christians – even though the 2008 city ordinance they challenged granted equal access for all faith groups, local Christian congregations supported the synagogue, and they had never been prevented from building a church. They also implausibly claimed that building the 2-story synagogue would cause “inevitable” floods and prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the area – even though the area is already surrounded by 22-story condos and several strip malls.
In addition to the opposition to its building, the Chabad has also suffered a string of attacks in the last few years. A teenage member of the synagogue was physically assaulted on a public sidewalk and told to “go back to Auschwitz.” The ministry’s temporary home has been vandalized repeatedly: its glass mezuzahs containing sacred scripture were destroyed and stolen, and a glass synagogue door was smashed.
But the Chabad persevered and eventually prevailed.
Winning the right to build
The Chabad twice urged a federal court to reject the lawsuit, and it won both times, first in July 2016 and then again in March 2017. The court went so far as to find that the plaintiffs “fail[ed] to allege any injury at all.” But in April 2017, the plaintiffs prolonged the case by appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which heard oral argument in January 2018.
On May 7, 2018 the Eleventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s appeal, clearing the way for the Chabad to build a new synagogue for its congregation. The ruling turned the page on a bizarre attempt to outlaw equal treatment of minority faiths in Boca Raton.
The Chabad of East Boca is represented by Becket and Kirkland & Ellis.