Before they started trying to block mosques, they tried to block synagogues

Blog ››› ››› ADAM SHAH

The right-wing media's so-far unsuccessful campaign to block an Islamic Center near the World Trade Center site through falsehoods and thinly-veiled religious bigotry is nothing new. But some of the characters have changed.

In the 1950s, the village of Sands Point in Long Island, New York, tried to block the conversion of a property known as The Chimneys to a synagogue. Although New York zoning law at the time clearly required Sands Point to issue a permit to a religious facility, the zoning board refused to allow the conversion, arguing that the plan to use the building for Sunday School, a "men's club," a "sisterhood" "a junior high school age youth group," and a community service center for "Red Cross work" and the like meant that the building would not be used purely for religious reasons.

Happily, the New York Court of Appeals -- New York's highest court -- rejected the town's attempt to block the synagogue in the 1956 case of Community Synagogue v. Bates. The court swept away the specious arguments against the synagogue, just as the New York City Landmarks Preservations Commission just swept away the specious arguments against the mosque.

Importantly, the Court of Appeals back in 1956 -- perhaps sensing that religious discrimination was behind the town's decision to reject the synagogue -- included a paragraph in its unanimous decision strongly reaffirming New York's commitment to religious freedom and noting that people came to the New World thinking "they had terminated the interference of public authorities with free and unhandicapped exercise of religion."

From the New York Court of Appeals powerful decision reminding us all of the importance of religious tolerance (via Lexis):

The position of the Village, as stated clearly in its brief (pp. 12-14) is that the board of appeals, under the provisions of the ordinance here, should have the power to deny an application for the location of a church at a "precise spot". This would not, of course, prohibit the use, erection, alteration or improvement of buildings or structures for churches and synagogues, in municipalities such as the intervenor, but would limit it. While many may be tempted to think that the solution offered by the [Village] is excellent, when one thinks it through one realizes that, if the municipality has the unfettered power to say that the "precise spot" selected is not the right one, the municipality has the power to say eventually which is the proper "precise spot". That, we all can see is the wrong solution. The men and women who left Scrooby for Leyden and eventually came to Plymouth in order to worship God where they wished and in their own way must have thought they had terminated the interference of public authorities with free and unhandicapped exercise of religion. We think that we should accept the fact that we are the successors of "We, the people" of the Preamble to the United States Constitution and that a court may not permit a municipal ordinance to be so construed that it would appear in any manner to interfere with the "free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship".

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Religion
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