A home-based synagogue near Cleveland, Ohio, sued the city of University Heights after local leadership hired a private investigator to spy on the congregation to track occupancy numbers.
The Aleksander Shul synagogue in University Heights filed a federal lawsuit on Oct. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Eastern Division against the city, alleging breaches of religious liberties in a zoning dispute and hiring a private investigator to monitor services.
The synagogue said it expressed concerns about the private investigator to local authorities, claiming at a city council meeting that the investigator's presence left mothers walking to services "deeply traumatized."
The suit challenges city zoning regulations that, according to the law firm involved, "effectively exclude houses of worship from the city and treat(s) religious institutions on less-than-equal terms than secular institutions."
The lawsuit argues that it is not possible to start a house of worship that complies with local housing laws because "places of worship can only attempt to locate in a very small number of lots within the City, and even then, they are only permitted if the City grants various variances, which are subject to unconstrained discretion and are therefore an unconstitutional prior restraint on Plaintiffs' religious expression and exercise."
University Heights Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan released a statement in response to the lawsuit, claiming officials have consistently tried to work with the Alexander Shul to "identify and resolve issues of public safety, including violations of the state building code and state fire code."
Brennan said the Shul's rabbi, Zalman Denciger, continued to hold daily meetings in a house not designed for large crowds and did not make any necessary repairs until threatened with a lawsuit. This unresponsiveness, Brennan claimed, put attendees in danger and demanded additional changes to the residence to accommodate larger numbers.
The Aleksander Shul has a long, conflict-filled history with University Heights authorities.
In 2019, the Aleksander Shul was cited for not complying with local zoning ordinances prohibiting private homes from serving as "house[s] of assembly." The synagogue was shut down in February and fined $65,000 over building code violations.
The city sued the Aleksander Shul in June, seeking to block the facility as a religious facility. A county judge blocked the original order, then issued an amended order that allowed the synagogue to continue operating. Under the order, the Shul would only be allowed a 36-person capacity and only hold services during Jewish holidays and other festive days such as Shabbos and Rosh Hashanah.
The city hired an investigator to monitor the synagogue to ensure the Shul stayed within occupancy limits.
The Aleksander Shul's lawsuit asks that the federal court issue orders that would allow the place of worship to continue operating and seeks compensatory damages from the city.
Requests for comment from the Aleksander Shul's legal team and Mayor Brennan's office were not immediately returned.
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Original Author: Christopher Hutton