On Dec. 20, 2018, the Rivkins filed a federal lawsuit in defense of their Chabad house (aka “Chabad of Towson and Goucher”) against Baltimore County and the Circuit Court, arguing the government violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). A U.S. Department of Justice website notes RLUIPA protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions “from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.” Under RLUIPA, the government cannot “burden” or hinder religious exercise through zoning laws unless it can prove that it does so out of compelling interest and in the least restrictive way to meet that interest.
The Chabad house’s lawsuit is the fifth RLUIPA suit brought against Baltimore County in the past two years. A synagogue, a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian church, and a Mormon ministry have sued the county for what they deem discriminatory zoning decisions.
The neighborhood association declined to comment for this article, but next-door neighbor Robin Zoll testified in the complaint that the extension blocks the view in front of her home and that the property value of her home decreased 5 percent. The Rivkins say they’ve never had noise complaints from neighbors, and that street parking isn’t a problem because they have parking space at the side of their home. (Zoll told The Baltimore Sun, and Rivkin confirmed, that the Chabad house had offered her financial compensation, but she turned it down because she wants the addition removed.)
Garrett Power, professor emeritus of law at the University of Maryland, said RLUIPA gives religious institutions an unfair advantage. He gave the example of a megachurch wanting to move into the suburbs. “The stakes can be quite high. If a county imposes a regulation, and they say they’re trying to protect against traffic or too much sewage, they can be sued under RLUIPA and be subject to huge amounts of damages.”
Antero Pietila, author of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, allowed that “people are in the habit of trying to circumvent regulations.” But he also said zoning laws and covenants have been selectively enforced to discriminate racially or religiously: “Covenants have been used in the same way that zoning has been used. They’re seen as a way of screening out undesirables—people who cannot afford and do not belong.”
Students and alumni have rallied around the Rivkins by starting a Facebook group and writing letters of support. Chabad rabbis have launched a social media campaign, raising over $160,000 in donations. Even Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford wrote a letter to the county, arguing that the ordered demolition “sets an unfortunate precedent of local government tearing down a religious structure over a simple zoning dispute between neighbors.”
On Jan. 10, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox granted Chabad a temporary reprieve on the tear-down order. Now the Rivkins have to wait until an appeal is heard in Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.
But all of that seems far away on a quiet Friday night at 14 Aigburth Road. With the tables set, students bow their heads over the blessing of the challah bread and line up to wash their hands in preparation for the meal. As the evening progresses, more and more students trickle in to eat chicken, drink the soup, and listen in mostly respectful silence to Mendy’s Torah teaching. As more arrive, others set up three more tables. The Rivkins expected unannounced arrivals because, as one student named Jessica Teich explained, “you don’t RSVP for dinner with your family.”