HABITAT

BOARD OPERATIONS

Condo Fined $10,000 for Forbidding Religious Item on Apartment Door

Frank Lovece in Board Operations

Nov. 4, 2009 Habitat predicted it a year ago – and it's come to pass: A condominium association tried to ban a unit-owner from displaying on her front door a mezuzah, a tiny cylinder containing a parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. When a Brooklyn co-op last year tried to likewise ban a small American flag, the board, after much controversy and publicity, eventually grandfathered the flag. "[T]his sidesteps the issue of future flags, mezuzahs, yellow ribbons and the like," we wrote in our October 2008 issue – and this Long Island board's failure to heed the lessons of that contretemps has resulted in a $10,000 fine from the New York Attorney General's office.

Patti Werner, 55, an owner at the 73-unit Stone Ridge Estates condominium complex in Dix Hills, N.Y., received a $50 fine on April 8, a month after moving in, for refusing to remove the mezuzah from her front door's frame. The condo bylaws "prohibited residents from changing or altering the exterior of their home without permission, which includes the affixing of signs, advertisements, or statuary," according to a statement from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. A mezuzah is commonly displayed on the doors of Jewish homes.

"Screening" for Religious Items

Lawrence Gresser, Stone Ridge Estates' real-estate developer and the president of the condo's Dix Hills Homeowners Association, would only allow mezuzahs and Christmas wreaths provided that the unit-owners "purchase a screen door costing between $300 to $500 dollars to conceal the object," according to Cuomo's office.

On Tuesday, October 27, Gresser signed an agreement with the AG stipulating that the association will pay a $10,000 fine and will rewrite its bylaws so that they "do not discriminate against residents because of their religion." Gresser afterward told The Jewish Week newspaper that the condo residents "are all ex-homeowners who had their homes of 30 or 40 years, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to get [the rules of] a condo community."

Susan Berland, a member of the Town Board of Huntington, L.I., within which the hamlet of Dix Hills is located, told the newspaper she did not believe the town had jurisdiction "to regulate what goes on in private condominium developments." She also said the AG's office had approved the condominium bylaws prohibiting signs, advertisements or statuary – in no category of which, however, do wreaths, mezuzahs or flags fall.

Flags, Mezuzahs, Boards and Lawsuits

In 2008, as reported in "Authoritarian Boards, Public Rancor and One Board's Wise Compromise" ( Habitat October 2008), the board at Brooklyn's Willoughby Walk Cooperative Apartments made national news when it attempted to prohibit a shareholder couple from continuing to display a small rubberized-magnet U.S. flag the couple had placed on the front door of its apartment in memory of a relative killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attack. After much controversy, the board voted to grandfather the existing flag while prohibiting future flags or other items, presumably including mezuzahs, on front doors.

That same year, a condo association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also tried to have a mezuzah removed from a front door, but relented when the Jewish homeowner filed a lawsuit. This year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit heard a case in which the Shoreline Towers condominium in Chicago forbade anything on doors – a rule the condo board has since amended to allow items of "sincerely held beliefs." Ironically, the court ruled 2-1 on July 10 that the federal Fair Housing Act does not accommodate a resident’s religious requirement to affix a mezuzah on a doorway if hallway items are banned for everyone regardless of religious beliefs. (Read the decision here.)

Addressing the Dix Hill case, Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center told The Jewish Week that the condo association's actions had "clos[ed] the door to Jews buying in this complex and to Christians who want to put up wreaths for the holidays. In America we are free to practice our faith, and these agents have gone down the path of folly and foolishness."

Cuomo's office similarly stated, "This country guarantees every individual the right to express his or her religious beliefs," adding, "The practices employed by the Dix Hills Homeowners Association went against the fundamental protections and promises of our laws, and I commend them for reforming their bylaws and practices to ensure that no resident will be the victim of this kind of discrimination."

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