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Religious Freedom

Appeals court gives synagogue its day in court on land-use fight

A federal judge should decide whether the city of Sunny Isles Beach violated the religious freedom of a synagogue when the city declared the temple historic.

That was the conclusion of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an opinion handed down Thursday in Temple B’Nai Zion’s suit against the city and Mayor Norman Edelcup for alleged violations of the federal Religious Land use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

The law prohibits cities from using zoning laws to prevent religious assembly.

The appeals court reversed the decision of a Miami federal judge who had dismissed the suit as premature.

The temple, 200 178th St., filed suit in December 2010, claiming the city violated RLUIPA.

Earlier that year, the Sunny Isles City Commission voted to designate parts of the property historic, a designation temple leaders did not want because it halted plans to expand to accommodate a growing congregation.

The city had also considered some older buildings for historic designation, like the 1949 Ocean Palm Resort Motel and the 1946 Golden Strand Ocean Villa Resort. Those properties didn’t get the designation. But B’Nai Zion, built in the 1960s, did.

City leaders argued the temple had historic significance because it was the site of a reunion of all the Holocaust survivors in the city, about 200 people, in 2004.

The rabbi “wants the historic landmark tag to be removed , and for us to be treated just like any other property owner,” said Daniel Wallach, a partner at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Becker & Poliakoff, which represents the temple.

The appellate court’s opinion rejected the May 2012 decision of U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams to dismiss the case on the grounds that the suit lacked ripeness. In other words, Williams found that the complaint doesn’t show how the historic designation prevents further development of the property since the temple hasn’t applied for variances or other applications.

Now, the case can go to a jury trial if either side doesn’t win a summary judgment. The appellate court considered only whether the case was ready for the courthouse, not which side was right.

“We merely decided today that the claims enumerated in the Temple’s complaint are ripe for judicial adjudication,” read the opinion.

The 23-page opinion was written by Atlanta-based U.S. Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson.

Wallach, who argued the appeal, said the case is more about the disparate treatment than the desire to expand.

“Even if we had no desire to expand, we don’t want our property burdened with a landmark designation,” he said.

Jeffrey Crockett, a partner at Miami-based firm Coffey Burlington who is representing the city, argued against the appeal. He said the temple’s tenant, another congregation that now shares the property, has not alleged any wrongdoing on its own.

“There’s a congregation that is occupying the building by way of a lease and is perfectly OK with the historic designation,” he said.

He also pointed to a part in the suit where the temple argues that the historic designation will prevent development and decrease the property’s market value.

“It’s not really a religious issue,” Crockett said. “It’s a land-value issue.”

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