Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Montreal borough passes bylaw to ban new religious buildings on Outremont’s main commercial streets 

Despite claims of discrimination and a threat of legal action, the Montreal borough of Outremont approved a bylaw Monday night that would relegate all new places of worship to an out-of-the-way industrial corner.

Members of Outremont’s Hasidic Jewish community, which makes up more than 20% of the population, say they are directly targeted by the measure because theirs is the only religion opening new places of worship in the borough.

The vote, following heated discussion with members of the public, was 4-1 in favour, with the only vote against coming from a Hasidic councillor, Mindy Pollak.

Two members of the Hasidic community, Alex Werzberger and Jacob Karmel, have already hired constitutional lawyer Julius Grey to challenge the zoning change, which prohibits new places of worship on Outremont’s main commercial streets.

In a letter sent to borough mayor Marie Cinq-Mars Friday, Grey noted Outremont’s “unfortunate history” of strained relations with the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community. The area set aside for new synagogues, churches and mosques is up against railway tracks in the borough’s northeast corner.

“The location chosen would be difficult to access and would require a 20- to 30-minute walk for the majority of the faithful,” Grey wrote. “As you are aware, observant Jews cannot use their cars on Saturday.”

The borough has maintained the changes are not aimed at any particular group and are necessary to create the “winning conditions” that will keep its shopping streets vibrant.

The lawyer’s letter said adopting the bylaw would be a show of bad faith. “We advise you that if is adopted in its present form, it will be immediately challenged before the courts,” the letter said.

It would not be the first conflict between Outremont and its growing Hasidic population to end up in the courts. In 2001, the Hasidim won a court case against Outremont, which had banned them from erecting an eruv, a symbolic string boundary that allows orthodox Jews to perform tasks that would otherwise be off limits on the Sabbath. In 2013, a court ruled in favour of a synagogue that Outremont was trying to shut down over a zoning violation. Hasidim are also invoking constitutional arguments to contest tickets handed out under a borough bylaw this year to mini-buses used to transport children on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Last year, the borough proposed strict limits on when Hasidic families could erect the huts known as sukkahs for the harvest holiday of Sukkot. It eventually backed down in the face of complaints that religious freedom was being violated.

A letter sent Monday to Cinq-Mars from 25 people, including Outremont residents and university professors, warned that the latest bylaw would damage Montreal’s international reputation.

“No public administration in a 21st century democracy should have proceeded blindly ahead, fostering divisions and tensions with baseless assertions about the impact of communities of faith,” they said.

In the end council sided with the many supporters of the change, including 900 who signed an online petition. “I would like to live in a society where everybody is treated in the same way, in a secular society,” Ginette Chartré, one of the creators of the petition, told Monday’s meeting, according to a report in Le Devoir.

Cinq-Mars told opponents that under city rules there is still the possibility of a referendum if enough people sign a registry to contest the zoning change.


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