TRENTON -- A rabbi who sued Freehold Township because he claimed it was persecuting him over prayer services in his house now says the town is trying to meddle with his religious freedom by defining his home as a place of worship.
Rabbi Avraham Bernstein is expanding his federal lawsuit against the town, saying that a new law it passed defines his house as a place of worship, something area zoning laws do not allow.
For violating zoning laws, Bernstein could face several hundreds of dollars in fines, according to the township's attorney, Duane Davison.
Bernstein has amended his federal lawsuit, arguing that the new ordinance, adopted in late September, is too vague under federal religious protections law and is meant to further empower the town to retaliate against the rabbi for holding prayer services at his house.
"This is a small group of Jews meeting in somebody's home. That's it. If there are a hundred cars pulling up it might be some concern. But these people walk. It's their Sabbath. They can't drive," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based civil liberties group representing the rabbi.
At issue is whether Bernstein, a rabbi with the ultraorthodox Lubavitch Chabad, is allowed to host a minyon -- the necessary 10 men to pray under orthodox Jewish law -- at his home on Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
The Monmouth County township says he is violating local zoning ordinances because he is using his home as a house of worship, according to the lawsuit.
The town claims that it tried to work with the rabbi for years, but eventually had to respond to neighbors' complaints about large meetings, according to Davison.
"We defended him for years, but as the activity got more intense at the house, we decided maybe the neighbors had something to talk about," Davison said.
Bernstein, whose home is located across the street from the township municipal building, received a zoning violation in February 2007 and a summons in April. In May, he filed a lawsuit in state court.
He filed another suit in federal court in August, which included the claim that the town was retaliating against him because it "secretly set up a video camera" aimed at Bernstein's home.
But according to Davison, the camera was about 350 feet away and was needed to establish that about 35 to 50 people -- not the smaller groups claimed by Bernstein -- were visiting the home.
Last month, the Freehold Township Committee amended the zoning law to include a definition of a house of worship as "any structure of building that is used as the regular site for traditional services, meetings and/or gatherings of an organized religious body or community."