Boca Faces Off With Residents Over Synagogue at 11th Circuit

An artistic rendering of the Chabad of East Boca, via Becket

BOCA RATON, Fla. (CN) – Attorneys for a Florida synagogue were confident after an 11th Circuit hearing Wednesday that the court will sideline a religion-establishment challenge 11 years in the making.

“From the oral argument, it did not sound like the plaintiffs were going to break their losing streak,” Becket attorney Daniel Blomberg said in an email. “Nor should they: their claims are weak, speculative, and as even their counsel admitted in court today, ‘novel.’”

Becket represents Chabad of East Boca, which in 2007 began buying up properties in a residential area of Boca known as the Golden Triangle, adjacent to the high-end Mizner Park.

Though the Golden Triangle was zoned for single-family residences, Chabad intended to operate a religious school and otherwise conduct services at the residences.

After the city changed the law to permit “places of worship” in such zoning districts, Chabad filed applications in 2016 to construct a 18,364 square-foot “place of public assembly” at 770 Palmetto Park, one of the properties it acquired.

Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall, two self-described Christians living in Boca, sued the city a year later.

The 11th Circuit heard an appeal of their case Wednesday in Miami after a federal judge dismissed their case for the second time last year.

Blomberg, the attorney for Becket, characterized Chabad’s efforts to build the synagogue as one of the most contentious building projects in Boca history.

“The problem here is a very small, very litigious group that doesn’t want a synagogue in the business district near their neighborhood,” he said.

Attorneys for Gagliardi and MacDougall are represented attorneys at Cole & Bierman, but representatives for the Fort Lauderdale firm have not returned a request for comment.

Jews for Religious Liberty, six rabbis and another group, the Coalition for Jewish Values, urged the 11th Circuit to affirm dismissal of the case in an amicus brief.

Gagliardi and MacDougall “argue that governmental entities may not take any action that is primarily motivated to benefit religious institutions,” their brief states. “Such a rule would make religious adherents ineligible to petition and seek redress of grievances from the government through the same political process as any other group of citizens. Such an anti–religious reading of the First Amendment would prevent governmental actors from doing things like providing chaplains or kosher food to Jews in prison or in the military. The First Amendment was never intended to make America inhospitable to religious practitioners. This Court should reject the Plaintiffs’ request to do so, especially when the Chabad received no special privileges from the city and was merely treated like every other group of citizens.”

The brief also warns that a reversal “would result in a return to the bad old days when ahistoric and overly antagonistic interpretation of the establishment clause menaced religious Americans ‘like some ghoul in a late–night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried.’”

Rabbi Ruvi New at Chabad of East Boca Raton is looking forward to the court’s ruling.

“All we’re asking for is equal treatment,” New said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that the court will protect our right to be equal members of the Boca Raton community.”

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