Hasidic sect challenges restriction on synagogue

Town contends rules don't interfere with right to worship

The Gazette, Montreal/September 21, 2007

Val Morin isn't about to bend its zoning regulations to allow a Montreal Hasidic community to maintain a synagogue and a children's school in a quiet residential area, a lawyer for the Laurentians town said yesterday.

"The regulations aren't there to protect one community over another," Stéphane Sansfaçon told Quebec Court of Appeal.

"They are meant to preserve harmony between people and to make sure everything functions well. They don't prevent anyone from praying."

But Julius Grey, representing the Congregation of the Followers of the Rabbis of Belz to Strengthen Torah, argued his clients' fundamental right to practise their religion is being violated.

The two sides squared off yesterday over a two-year-old Quebec Superior Court ruling that rejected that argument.

The judge wrote the Belz community could replace the synagogue and the school, located in two cottages covering about 33,000 square feet, by building on 186,000 square feet of land it owns nearby.

But the community argues that land is mostly swamp and is not usable. Most of the families have eight to 10 children and are poor, Grey said yesterday, so they can't afford to buy other land even if some were available.

The town maintains the group lied about how the cottages would be used when it applied about 20 years ago for a permit to build. The congregation has been given many warnings that it is violating the bylaws, Sansfaçon added.

Members of the community, whose synagogue is on Jeanne Mance St., have been spending eight-week summer vacations in Val Morin, about 90 kilometres northwest of Montreal, for more than 20 years.

Non-Jewish residents have complained the Hasidim create garbage, traffic and noise.

The bulk of the colony - 40 families totalling about 200 people - lives in 16 cottages scattered along the Rivière du Nord.

Yesterday, Val Morin resident Germaine Noëlla said the teenagers who attend the school well into the evening are the biggest problem.

"And it's not singing like you hear coming from a church. It's more like chanting and stomping on the floor," she said outside the courtroom. "And the traffic is terrible."

But Grey argued that schools and churches are often in residential areas. The community's buildings aren't as offensive as a factory that could cause people to close their windows, he added.

The three-judge panel said it would render a decision in the near future.

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