PORTLAND, Maine — A Hasidic rabbi is challenging an order by the city of Portland to halt weekly prayer meetings at his home because they violate zoning regulations.
Rabbi Moshe Wilansky, with the backing of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, has asked the Zoning Board of Appeals to annul the order because it violates his right to practice his religion.
“Even if there is some legitimate complaint, which I would dispute, this is a matter of fundamental religious liberty,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the MCLU.
The directive stemmed from a complaint by a neighbor and public works employees that too many cars park along Craigie Street during Saturday worship service and block snow plows and trash trucks during winter.
At issue is whether Wilansky’s home is a residence or a place of worship. The rabbi says it’s a house, but the city says Chabad Lubavitch of Maine, the nonprofit religious organization he heads, advertises it on its Web site, www.chabadofmaine.com, as a place of worship.
Some religious leaders plan to rally outside City Hall in support of Wilansky prior to the appeals board’s meeting tomorrow.
“What’s concerning is the precedent of saying to anyone in the city of Portland, ‘How you exercise your religious practices in your home is going to be limited,’ “ said Eric C. Smith, congregational outreach coordinator for the Maine Council of Churches.
The neighbor who filed the complaint against Wilansky, Mary Lewis, declined comment.
Penny Littell, Portland’s planning and urban development director, said the city had worked with Wilansky to find an acceptable place for his organization to build a synagogue. A site was approved, but the synagogue was never built and its permits lapsed last summer.
Because the Chabad Lubavitch movement, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has no synagogues in Maine, Wilansky practices his brand of orthodox Judaism at home. His supporters say the Saturday morning prayer, the most important of the week, requires a group of 10 men to conduct. Because orthodox Jews are not supposed to drive on the Sabbath, his choices for a place to pray are limited, supporters said in a letter to the zoning board.
Noting that 15 to 20 worshippers, most of whom don’t drive, visited his house every Saturday, Wilansky said he couldn’t understand the fuss over a handful of cars on a street where a similar number are parked for Sunday football parties and holiday get-togethers.
“You see Craigie Street, there’s spaces for hundreds of cars on both sides,” he said.