Rabbi goes to court to fight $40,000 fine for having religious meetings in home

A rabbi in Hawaii has gone to court to challenge $40,000 in fines authorities have leveled against him for holding religious meetings in his own home.

First Liberty Institute said it has filed a federal complaint against county officials on the Big Island, on behalf of Rabbi Levi Gerlitzky.

“Rabbi Gerlitzky has a constitutional right to engage in religious activities in his home with family or friends in the Jewish community, free from government burden and interference,” explained Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute.

“By levying fines on religious gatherings 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.”

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Elizabeth Kiernan of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which also is working on the case, said, ‘The law and Constitution protect Rabbi Gerlitzky’s right to host gatherings of family and friends in his home to meet their spiritual needs.”

The legal team explained that since 2017, Gerlitzky has lived on the Big Island to serve the needs of the small Jewish community through the Chabad Jewish Center of the Big Island.

As part of that effort, he often invites members of his community to his home.

The complaint explains hosting such gatherings at his home is necessary since there are no public options within walking distance that offer kosher kitchen facilities.

“To comply with the Sabbath restrictions of his Orthodox faith, some of the rabbi’s guests, which rarely exceeds 30 people, will walk to the rabbi’s home for Shabbat meals, occasional prayer meetings, and other Sabbath observances such as Passover.”

But state authorities have fined him for that, prompting the complaint that charges those fines are a substantial burden on a religious practice – without any compelling government interest involved at all.

“Even though secular and other religious gatherings regularly take place in Rabbi Gerlitzky’s neighborhood unmolested, defendants have unlawfully imposed a substantial burden on Rabbi Gerlitzky and the center, ordering the center to pay thousands of dollars in fines for its religious gatherings and denying Rabbi Gerlitzky a permit to host meetings for the center at his home until he first brings his home up to all commercial standards—a burden that is not feasible for Rabbi Gerlitzky and the center to meet.”

The report explains local government officials allow social gatherings without issue, but demand that meetings for “religious purposes” are only allowed when a special permit is obtained.

The complaint accuses the county of waging a “regulatory war” on the rabbi and the center.

Those demands are based on a “facially unconstitutional zoning ordinance,” the complaint charges.

The case seeks declaratory relief, monetary damages, attorneys’ fees and injunctive relief.

The complaint First Amendment and federal law both are being violated because the regulations allow secular meetings in homes without a permit, but require any religious meeting in a home to first obtain that permit.

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