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Court overturns ruling on synagogue in Hancock Park

August 22, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned a lower court's decision that permitted an Orthodox Jewish congregation to operate a synagogue in a residential neighborhood of Los Angeles' Hancock Park area.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court erred when it dismissed a lawsuit by a neighborhood group. The League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates contended that an agreement between Congregation Etz Chaim and the city of Los Angeles violated zoning laws.

The appeals court agreed with the neighborhood group and sent the matter back to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to be reconsidered.

"It's great news," said Leslie Werlin, the attorney who appealed the lower court's decision. "We've been fighting this since 2003."

The matter first surfaced in 1996, when Etz Chaim applied to the city zoning administrator for a variance to use a run-down residence at Highland Avenue and 3rd Street as a synagogue. The application was denied, and that denial was upheld by the City Council and California state courts.

Citing a federal law that protects religious organizations from discrimination by local zoning boards, the congregation then sued the city in federal court. Etz Chaim and the city agreed to a settlement that permitted the congregation to worship at the site -- on which it had built a greatly expanded structure -- but restricted other congregation activities there.

It was this settlement agreement that the neighborhood group challenged. U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder dismissed the group's complaint in December 2003.

"We're disappointed by the decision," said Susan Azad, the congregation's attorney. "We'll be looking at it to see if this warrants appeal to the Supreme Court."

She said the opinion "calls into question the city's ability to settle these kinds of cases, which could have wide-ranging implications."

Werlin said that by entering into an agreement with the congregation in order to get out from under the federal lawsuit, the city forfeited its status as an impartial arbiter between the interests of Etz Chaim and those of the wider community.

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james.ricci@latimes.com

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