Mezuzah Case: Condo Association Bylaw vs. Jewish Practice

Courtesy of Barbara CadranelThe case of a Connecticut woman who's being fined for affixing a mezuzah to her condo's doorframe pits the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom against a condo association's bylaws -- and so far, the condo association isn't backing down.

Neither is Barbara Cadranel: Though the California Condo Association in Stratford, Conn., is threatening to impose a $50-a-day fine until the tiny religious scroll in its small, decorative box is removed, the 60-year-old tenant is fighting to be able to practice a required Jewish rite.

In her opinion, she's being discriminated against, and she may be right. Her neighbors have been freely allowed to hang Easter wreathes and crucifixes on their doors. The difference, though, is that the California Condo Association allows for door adornments, but claims its rules prohibit hanging anything on the doorframe, where Jewish law explicitly requires a mezuzah be hung.

Mezuzah discrimination

That's a very pointed attack on religious rights, says Cadranel's lawyer, Alyza Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP in Washington, D.C.

"They allow everything -- they don't have a problem as long as it's not on the doorframe," Lewin said. "They make a distinction between the door and the doorpost, and the one item with any regularity that you'll see on the doorpost is a mezuzah. That's a rule that is targeting mezuzahs without saying it explicitly."

Bending A Definition

Beyond that, Lewin alleges, even the condo association's claim that the bylaw in question applies to doorframes is a stretch.

"It prohibits her from putting anything on the exterior walls, but in the text, the exterior walls clearly refer to the outside of the building -- the awnings, for example -- and have nothing to do with interior walls," Lewin said. "They're squeezing in the doorpost as an exterior wall. It seems as if they're trying to force this definition in order to come up with some justification."

Though there's nothing cited specifically about the inside hallways -- where the units' doors are -- the condo association has been pushing that interpretation to make its case. Yet the bylaws, which enumerate what belongs to each individual owner, explicitly identify windows, window screens and screen doors as part of the condominium unit. Given that, it's baffling that the doorframe wouldn't be included, according to Lewin.

"The idea that the screen door -- but not the door frame -- is a part of the unit, that would probably come as a surprise to the people at Home Depot people selling you a door," she said.

Exclusion Beyond Aesthetics

Given that the small glass mezuzah (secured in place by Velcro) is neither a safety hazard nor an eyesore, Lewin says, she can only interpret this to be a case of discrimination. That would put the California Condo Association in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act.

"You're saying that the only people who can live here cannot put up a mezuzah," Lewin said. "The condominium is saying that observant Jews aren't welcome to live here."

The Anti-Defamation League has also rallied behind Cadranel to protect her rights.

"Requiring it to be taken down is tantamount to requiring a Jewish person to move," said Randi Pincus, assistant director of the Connecticut regional office of the ADL. "In effect, it's to exclude people of a certain background from living there."

Pincus said that mezuzah cases crop up every few years. And legal precedents have been set indicating that Cadranel is likely to win her case if it goes to court. In 2009, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bloch v. Frischholz that a condo rule prohibiting an owner from affixing a mezuzah violated various federal prohibitions against religious discrimination in housing.

There's another type of religious housing case that has cropped up in the courts and in the news in recent years. Some groups have fought against the rights of Orthodox Jews to put up an eruv -- a ritual enclosure line that surrounds a community. Usually created by running thin, virtually invisible fishing wire from the tops of utility poles and streetlamps, an eruv makes it legal (under Jewish law) for a religiously observant person to perform certain activities outside during the Sabbath that would otherwise be forbidden: carrying a cane, for example, or pushing a stroller.

And as with the mezuzah, whatever antagonism arises over an eruv seems aimed less at its actual, physical presence -- which can go almost undetected -- and more at the people who need it.

"Unless you know that the eruv is there, the casual observer won't notice it," Lewin said. "It's not as if the opposition to it is not an aesthetic one. There's some concern that if there's an eruv in the area, there's a thought that the Orthodox Jews who require this will move in and the community will be overrun by a certain type of person."

Said Pincus: "Any case where there's an issue of trying to take regulations and adjust them as necessary to accommodate religious practice, every effort should be made. Especially in the case of the mezuzah: It's not harming anyone, and it's very unobtrusive."

Staying Strong

If the condominium association does not agree to allow the mezuzah, Lewin said that she will file complaint on behalf of Cadranel with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

Cadranel is weathering the storm.

"By allowing those displays but prohibiting my small mezuzah, they have made me -- as a Jew -- feel very unwelcome," Cadranel told AOL Real Estate. "I have felt bullied and intimidated. I think the distinction they are making between the door and the doorpost is bogus."

"It's made her feel rather unwelcome," said Lewin, "but at the moment she has no plans of leaving, and no plans of taking down the mezuzah."

Update: On April 3, Nathan Lewin and Alyza D. Lewin announced that their client Barbara Cadranel, had successfully resolved the issue in her favor--just in time for the Easter and Passover season. The California Condominium Association has agreed to allow Cadranel to hang her mezuzah and has completely removed any penalties and fees against her. The condominium association has also announced that it will allow any future residents to place a mezuzah or any other religious symbol on door frames without necessary approval.


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