The Mezuzah File | Bleader

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mezuzah File

Posted By on 07.30.08 at 05:34 PM

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As headlines often do, the one on the front page of the latest Chicago Jewish News puts the matter a little too simply: "FEDERAL CASE, The U.S. Court of Appeals Says a Chicago Woman Has No Right to Put a Mezuzah on Her Front Door." 

That would be no right under federal law -- as distinct from state law and Chicago ordinance, which, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals observes, do defend plaintiff Lynne Bloch's mezuzah. And as do the rejiggered rules of the Shoreline Towers Condominium Association, which for a time kept removing Ms. Bloch's mezuzah from her front door. 

If you have no interest in examining legal disputes, stop reading now. I think they can be fascinating, and I think the Jewish News account by managing editor Pauline Dubkin Yearwood does a good job of threading its way through this one, the grabber headline notwithstanding. The central facts are these: Bloch went to federal court in 2006 seeking damages from the Shoreline Towers Condominium Association for the way it treated her mezuzah, and the Seventh Circuit just tossed out her suit. 

These facts are not in dispute: Bloch herself led the committee that in 2001 promulgated what was called the Hallway Rule. The pivotal rule one said this: "Mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort are prohibited outside Unit entrance doors." Following a 2004 renovation at Shoreline Towers, 6301 N. Sheridan Road, rule one was reinterpreted by the condo board to include things on the door. Which, among other things, meant all mezuzahs.

Because both the state of Illinois and Chicago subsequently acted, and the condo board, under fire, relaxed its rules, the Bloch mezuzah is back on her doorjamb. But Bloch has been after damages, and unless the three-judge Seventh Circuit panel is overruled by the full circuit or the Supreme Court, no jury will ever get to decide if she deserves them.

Judges don't always disagree with each other for fancy philosophical reasons. The Bloch suit strikes me as a case in which judges disagree because one thinks harder about a matter than the other. Here's the Seventh Circuit opinion of July 10, written by Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, with Senior Judge William Bauer concurring. It's a brisk six pages long and leans heavily on a Seventh Circuit ruling four years ago in a similar case, Halprin v. Prairie Single Family Homes of Dearborn Park Association. Halprin, Easterbrook explains, held that the federal Fair Housing Act "forbids discrimination in the 'terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling' but does not address discrimination after ownership has changed hands." And although the act might come into play if religious discrimination were so intolerable it amounted to "constructive eviction," [Bloch contended she was bound by Jewish law to display a mezuzah, and if she could not she would have to move] in this case that was not a consideration. 

Because -- "The hallway rule, as adopted in 2001 and as enforced in 2004, is neutral with respect to religion . . ." says Easterbrook. "The association removed secular photos and posters as well as Christmas ornaments, crucifixes, and mezuzot. Generally applicable rules that do not refer to religion differ from discrimination."

Judge Diane Wood's dissent is 17 pages long. She takes the idea of constructive eviction a lot more seriously than Easterbrook does. She disagrees with him about what can be found, or at least teased out of federal law, and about what the Seventh Circuit actually said in Halprin. She keeps in mind that the court isn't being called on to decide whether Bloch should win or lose her suit, but simply whether a jury should be allowed to hear it. And she pauses to examine and regret, in a case in which anti-Semitism is at issue, the assertion in a defense brief that "throughout this matter, Plaintiffs have been trying to get their 'pound of flesh' from Defendants." 

A second Shoreline Towers resident to sue the condo association over the mezuzah ban is Debra Gassman, who's since moved to Israel. Here's a May 15 Hot Type in which I touch on her suit.

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