Temple B’nai Sholom v. City of Huntsville, Alabama (2000-03)

The legal story of the Temple B’nai Sholom can seem as long as its history in Alabama. It is a Reform Jewish synagogue in Huntsville, that was founded in 1876 and has been in the same spot since 1899.

In the 1970s, the Temple B’nai Sholom purchased two adjacent pieces of property for future expansion. Each parcel contained a house, neither of which was of historic significance, although the entire area lies within an historic preservation district. The Temple demolished the first house without any objection from the city or the Historic Preservation Commission, just as other property owners in the area, including several nearby churches, had done with similar houses.

Thirty years later, city code enforcement officials issued a notice declaring the Temple’s second house unsafe, and ordering the Temple to either “repair or demolish” the structure. Since the Temple was planning to use the site for expansion and religious activities, it complied and sought permission of the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission to demolish the house.

Then things got complicated.

The Commission refused, leaving the Temple B’nai Sholom in an impossible “Catch 22” situation: ordered by one city agency to demolish the house, and prohibited by another from doing so. To add insult to injury, the city then sought a criminal misdemeanor conviction against the Temple for its failure to obey the order to “repair or demolish.” Meanwhile, the City of Huntsville itself was demolishing a number of houses of the same vintage as the house owned by the Temple by burning them down! In other words, the Historic Commission would let the city burn down old houses, but the Temple B’nai Sholom could not demolish its building in an orderly fashion.

In 2001, the Temple sued the City of Huntsville, the head of the city’s Inspection Department, and the administrator of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. Shortly after, we stepped in. In October of 2001, we joined the case and charged the city with violations of the Constitutions of Alabama and the United States and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

We won. The city settled and the Temple B’nai Sholom got its way, though not without the city inserting language at the end of the agreement refusing to concede that RLUIPA and the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment are “valid laws.” The last cry of the bureaucrats.

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