When Is a By-law Not My Law? When the Borough of Outremont Makes it So
Lire cet article en français "Quand un règlement n’est-il pas mon droit? Quand l’arrondissement d’Outremont le veut ainsi"
A repeated refrain can be heard in the borough of Outremont, especially out of the mouths of our elected officials. “The Hassidim do not follow our laws and bylaws!” With indignation they point to “illegal” synagogues, “illegal” parking, “Illegal” buses, and “illegal” religious practices. With all that in the air, you can bet that the average Outremont citizen must look askance at their Hassidic neighbours, assuming that each and every one of us is an illegal citizen.
But as we did with the burning bread ceremony, we are finally taking a closer look at these accusations. Are the Hassidim really conducting themselves illegally? Or are they being pushed into a corner, given no alternatives, and then pounced upon by opportunistic officials who are only too happy to accuse them of flouting the law? We’ll let you decide.
Let’s look at the case of the Munchas Elozer Munkas synagogue, situated at 1030-1032 St Viateur. The borough of Outremont recently took them to court for operating illegally. After 6 months in court, Judge André Prévost handed down his ruling on April 18, dismissing the case and all proceedings. The borough could not have been happy with that. But how did we get there in the first place?
In 1976 a few individuals rented a small building on St Viateur to open a synagogue. The Munchas Elozer Munkas was to serve a small congregation of 35 families who trace their origins back to Munkatz, a village in Czechoslovakia. In 1980 one of its members, Pinchas Freund, a young man at the time, was able to buy it from the owner, a Mr March.
Like most buildings in the neighbourhood at that time, it was old and needed repair. Through the years the congregation conducted four renovation projects, each time receiving building permits from the appropriate office.
- 3 July 1980: removed a wall and repaired plaster work
- 15 September 1980: dug out the basement to include a ritual bath
- 9 January 1984: repaired the exterior wall
- 16 September 1986: installed plumbing and bathroom
Church OK but synagogue not
In 1992, the City undertook to update many of its zoning laws (which hadn’t been changed since 1969). All non-private uses and locations were accommodated, such as, for example, the Chinese Presbyterian Church across the street.
But the Munkas synagogue was not only left out of this, it was given a zoning territory that was so small that even the judge called it “très réduite.” The RB-4 zone consists of precisely four buildings, three of which are residential. Even though the synagogue is on a decidedly commercial section of the street and is bounded by commercial activity, it was “attached” instead to four residential buildings behind it, an illogical and unprecedented move. But because of this, the synagogue, was now officially contravening zoning laws. The congregation made several appeals to the City/borough to change this, to no avail.
See for yourself
At one point in the legal proceedings, the lawyer Mr. Marvin Segal asked the honorable court to visit the synagogue, to see for himself how its use was contravening the otherwise “peaceful” and private usage of the street. Lawyers for the borough of Outremont argued against this visit. Luckily, the judge accepted the request and he visited the neighbourhood and the synagogue. He noted the following:
- Maintaining the activities of the congregation does not transform the urban characteristics of the sector.
- The synagogue is close to two the similar buildings in the same territory.
The first registered citizen complaint against the synagogue came in 2002 from a Madame Dinelle. There was no official reaction by the borough at the time, although during the trial a neighbour, Meyer Klein, testified to say that the issue was resolved in person at the time to the satisfaction of the complainant. As well, at the time, other residents of that building came forward to support the synagogue.
The second registered citizen complaint was filed by a William Morris in 2008, who, the judge noted, “lives neither in the sector nor, indeed, the territory of the borough of Outremont.” His claim was to stop the “unauthorized use” of the building. Again, the borough did not directly act on this complaint.
Then, around the time of Celine Forget’s entrance on the scene in 2009, an undated petition appeared with 200 signatories. While no complaints were specified, the petition demanded that the synagogue respect zoning bylaws. As with Mr Morris’ complaint, the judge took pains to note that none of the signatories lived on St Viateur or even in the vicinity.
Incredulously, the borough of Outremont’s legal proceedings against the Munchas Elozer Munkas synagogue were based on two key “facts”: (i) the absence of a bylaw permitting a “place of study or prayer,” and (ii) the 2008 citizen petition.
The judge rules
Presented with the “evidence,” Judge André Prévost was unequivocal in his dismissal. The facts of the case were so clear to him, it was not even necessary, he pointed out at the end of his judgment, to appeal to either human rights or religious freedom. He particularly noted that:
- Although the City/borough claimed the synagogue was illegal, it nonetheless issued four renovation permits through the years.
- Through its failure to act otherwise, the city/borough had in fact been “accommodating” the synagogue since 1980.
- The synagogue displayed “good faith” on several occasions by either appealing to the city/borough for a bylaw ruling or by looking for other locations.
Judge Prévost took particular pains to note the cadre of citizens who neither lived on the St Viateur or in the vicinity, yet were cited by the city/borough as proof of the synagogue being a “nuissance.”
Sometimes the good guys win
When asked about the ruling, Pinchas Freund was delighted. “There are only four synagogues in Outremont,” he said. “Considering our population, that’s not so much.” But he was not happy with how much court cases such as this cost. “And what did the City pay? Over a hundred thousand,” he estimated. “What a waste of tax payer money. I feel bad for the citizens of Outremont.”
But there are concessions. “The judge said it was important that the city have clean hands in this affair, des mains propres,” Mr. Freund laughed. “He’s forcing the borough of Outremont to be better neighbours.”
Diligent… or Dogmatic?
From the beginning of her arrival as elected Outremont councilor, Celine Forget has stated that her mission is to “mettre fin aux tolérance secrètes” (end the secret laxity between the borough and the Hassidim) and to stop the “deux poids-deux mesures” (one law for the Hassidim, one for everyone else). It goes without saying – well, actually, she says it all the time – that the target of this zeal is the Hassidic community.
For example, how can it be that she expresses sincere concern for accommodating the parking issues of Outremont Theatre goers (here), yet sees every instance of interaction between the Hassidic community and the borough as evidence of lobbyism, propaganda, and wrong doing?
But maybe she has finally gone overboard. The recent hijacking of the entire borough administration to take this synagogue to court besmirches both the good name of the Outremont borough and its citizens. This frivolous case, based on flimsy evidence and bad faith, has cost everyone. Your tax dollars, our good energy, and the trust that we need to place in our elected officials.
The borough must be seen to have “clean hands,” as the judge noted. We hope Madame Forget is washing hers.Follow @OutremontHassid