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Lawsuit: Hawaiian county is illegally fining a Jewish rabbi $40,000+ for holding religious meals and prayer gatherings in his home


It’s not unusual for government officials to try to shut down and silence religious expression in the public square, but now they increasingly see the family home as their purview as well.

First Liberty Institute has filed suit on behalf of a Jewish rabbi after officials with the County of Hawaii levied fines against him and demanded he get a use permit in order to have people over to his house for prayer or ceremonial meals.

Rabbi Levi Gerlitzky is facing over $40,000 in fines for holding Shabbat meals, prayer gatherings, and holiday celebrations at his home on the Big Island of Hawaii. According to the complaint, Gerlitzky is an employee of the Chabad Jewish Center of the Big Island. Chabad centers often direct their outreach to people who wouldn’t normally be involved in religious practices with others. Chabad rabbis invite Jewish residents who are not Orthodox to observe Orthodox practices at gatherings such as Shabbat meals.

There are many dietary requirements for Shabbat meals, including that the kitchen must be kosher, which means that all remnants of non-kosher food must be removed from the kitchen and that pots must go through a cleansing process. Due to the difficulty of preparing a kitchen to follow Orthodox practices, Chabad rabbis often hold meals in their homes.

Gerlitzky had been having prayer gatherings and ceremonial meals at his home for around four years when the County Planning Department sent a complaint to the Center and to Gerlitzky. The department said that churches, temples, and synagogues must get a use permit and claimed that Gerlitzky was operating a synagogue out of his home. When Gerlitzky tried to get a use permit, he was denied, and county officials told him he would first need to have changes made to his home, such as upgrading the wastewater system and adding water suppression.

Gerlitzky opposes making such changes, explaining, “We just want to have our people over for meals and prayers.”

First Liberty claims that the law violates the First Amendment because it requires churches, temples, and synagogues to have permits not just for their buildings but for all their meeting facilities. Secular groups are allowed to meet without a permit.

Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys argues,

“Rabbi Gerlitzky has a constitutional right to engage in religious activities in his home with family and friends in the Jewish community, free from government burden or interference. By levying fines on religious practices while allowing similar secular in-home gatherings like Super Bowl parties and book clubs to continue without penalty, the County violates both the U.S. Constitution and federal law.”

The legal group recently won two cases that resemble that of Gerlitzky’s. After First Liberty sent two letters to Beverly Hills, California, the city dropped a notice of violation against a rabbi who had hosted religious gatherings in his home. The city had investigated the rabbi using surveillance tools, including a drone, while threatening him with criminal charges.

First Liberty also reached a settlement with the village of Airmont, New York, for its clients in December. For 30 years, the village had been using discriminatory zoning laws to force Orthodox Jews to abide by ridiculous regulatory demands, including going through an arduous permitting process to worship in their own living rooms. Under the terms of the settlement, First Liberty clients will now be allowed to worship freely in their homes.

This is just one of many cases whereby Hawaiian government officials are openly defying the inalienable rights of its citizens. Recently, for example, the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that Hawaiian residents have no Second Amendment right to bear arms or to self-defense. In another case, some Hawaiian schools are banning Good News Clubs from meeting on campus, even as secular clubs are allowed full access.

Now, the County of Hawaii is demanding that religious residents come, hat in hand, and ask for a permit to gather with others for worship, prayer, and ceremonial meals in their own homes — even though other county residents can have their own secular celebrations, whether it be a Super Bowl celebration or a graduation party.

The First Amendment clearly states that the government can do nothing to prohibit the free exercise of religion. Already, though, government officials are working to silence religious views in the public square — while allowing secular speech and worship activities — and now they increasingly believe that a family home is also part of their purview. This is a blatant violation of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has ruled that in some situations the government may burden the free exercise of religion with laws that are generally applicable to all citizens and neutral towards religion. But they cannot enforce a law on a religious group while ignoring that same law for others. Attempts to implement the latter type of violation have been slapped down numerous times in recent years by the U.S. Supreme Court, including in their decisions in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Shurtleff v. City of Boston.

By allowing secular gatherings in the home while putting onerous permitting demands on someone holding a religious gathering, the County of Hawaii’s rules are neither generally applicable nor neutral. This is not the first attempt to turn religious Americans into second-class citizens, banned from worshipping freely even in their own homes, but hopefully the courts will rule quickly and ensure that it is the last.

[Photo credit: First Liberty Institute]

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