By LARRY COHEN
Everyone knows that planning and zoning commissions and historic district commissions are tools of the Devil.
Consider the ongoing Litchfield land-use street theater, directed by Satan himself, in which a Jewish congregation is attempting to plop a synagogue and house expansion in the borough’s Historic District.
-- Cohen Photo By Chion Wolf
The Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield has now filed a federal suit, based on a hilariously complex and controversial Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, which kind of, sort of, maybe limits the powers of government to inhibit the practice of religion, in a land-regulating kind of way.
Much more entertaining than the legal record that this case creates is the subtext. The lurking suspicion is that the official resistance is a nuanced form of anti-Semitism — aimed not only at Jews in general, but, in this case, an Orthodox branch of the religion that in dress and other, more subtle, ways, won’t be mistaken for Presbyterians on the way to chapel.
For Litchfield County, which has a concentration of Jews more on the order of South Dakota than West Hartford, the current Litchfield case may sound vaguely familiar. It was in the 1970s that a non-traditional Jewish congregation with “sleeping quarters” dragged the town of Norfolk up to the state Supreme Court in a zoning dispute — a dispute that prompted a majority opinion suggesting that houses of worship had a “cloak of immunity” against onerous zoning rules. Ah, if only it were that simple.
Arguing against the implication of anti-Semitism is the instinct of Litchfield to view the construction of anything new and different in the historic district as if it were to be a slaughterhouse or nuclear power plant.
Quite aside from the current Litchfield case, towns and neighborhoods have often had a resistance to growth in the name of the Lord. Houses of worship can be noisy. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches often face resistance from neighbors, fearing that evangelical fervor will prompt joyous (and loud) noise unto the Lord. Churches don’t generate tax revenue, but often generate traffic. New Milford spent years in court battling with a family that wanted to hold “prayer meetings” in its residential neighborhood.
As to the legal rights of the Jewish congregation in Litchfield, federal legislative intent is clearly on its side. The first version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was laughed out of court by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Congress came right back with a new version that seems to pass muster. In truth, the lower courts and their appellate cousins are littered with zoning cases involving churches — and the record is sufficiently murky as to suggest the presence of a mischievous God.
Litchfield will need to show a “compelling” need to torture the congregation — and then some miserable jury or really bored judge is going to decide whether the Historic District is justified in staving off the Jewish expansion.
The proper strategy would be for the judge to threaten both sides with the Mighty Hand of God, and insist that the lawyers withdraw to a conference room and not come out until a settlement is reached.
In a letter to Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, in Newport, R.I., President George Washington asked that “the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all…in his own due time and way, everlastingly happy.”
The Litchfield case might not generate everlasting happiness, but all involved might pray for a little scattered light.
Laurence D. Cohen, a former reporter, editor and member of the Hartford Courant's editorial board, has worked as an executive speechwriter at the Hartford Insurance Group and United Technologies Corp. He is a former president of the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Connecticut Valley Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. He is the former executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, in Hartford, and served as special assistant to former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland. He has taught at the University of Connecticut, Central Connecticut State University, Albertus Magnus College and the University of Hartford.