MONTREAL – Members of the chassidic community sent a mise en demeure, a legal demand letter, to Outremont councillors on Jan. 5 in an attempt to forestall the Montreal borough from proceeding with its plan to prohibit new places of worship in certain commercial districts.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Julius Grey, says the proposed rezoning of the areas around Laurier and Bernard avenues will adversely affect the growing chassidic community by preventing it from opening needed additional synagogues. The council’s proposal that places of worship be restricted in future to a zone in the northeast corner of the borough, near the train tracks, is not acceptable, because it is a 20- to 30-minute walk from where most Chassidim live, Grey said.
The letter warns that if the council goes ahead, the plaintiffs will contest the matter in court.
Outremont is expected to issue a public notice Jan. 14 on procedure now that the council has voted twice in favour of the proposed bylaw, at its November and December meetings.
In accordance with Quebec law, the proposed rezoning will be put to a referendum if a minimum number (to be announced) of Outremont residents sign a register indicating their opposition to the bylaw. If there are insufficient signatures, the council will vote for a third and final time on the proposed bylaw.
The vote tally was 4-1 at the two previous council meetings, with the only dissenter being Coun. Mindy Pollak, a member of the chassidic community.
Just before the second vote on Dec. 7, Grey sent a letter on behalf of members of the chassidic community to borough Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars expressing their objection to the changes.
“It is clear that the regulation directly targets [the Chassidim] not with the goal of satisfying their needs, but of bullying them. Moreover, Outremont has an unfortunate history and strained relations with this community,” he wrote.
Grey, who specializes in civil rights, notes that at the public consultation meeting the borough convened on Dec. 1, the majority of the presenters spoke against the rezoning, and, therefore, the bylaw, if adopted as is, could be declared invalid. Most of the opponents were chassidic.
The local newspaper L’Express d’Outremont reported Jan. 5 that a petition in favour of the rezoning has collected nearly 900 signatures.
Mayer Feig, who frequently speaks on behalf of the Chassidim, said the community is ready to mobilize its members for a register.
Jews are estimated to represent about 20 per cent of Outremont’s population.
Feig maintains the council is acquiescing to a small group of residents who “do not like us” and who perennially accuse the Chassidim of flouting bylaws and otherwise not being good citizens.
He also says there is no solid evidence that banning more places of worship would revitalize Laurier and Bernard, which the council says is the intention. No independent study has been conducted to support that claim, Feig said.
Before the rezoning was proposed, a chassidic congregation had applied to the borough to open a religious centre, which would house a mikvah, on Bernard Avenue.
Michael Rosenberg, a prominent real estate developer and one of the plaintiffs, said a few weeks ago he convened a meeting of Bernard merchants. Some raised concerns about more religious establishments, but Rosenberg thinks that “most of them well understood that… such places of worship… do not constitute a threat to the local economy.
“What is certain, all acknowledge that other measures should be undertaken to improve the present commercial situation.”
Rosenberg is skeptical about the council’s defence that it’s not singling out the chassidic community, as the bylaw would apply to all religions.
“There is no doubt that the measures envisioned directly target… almost exclusively the Jewish community… and undoubtedly strike at its fundamental rights, all for the claimed goal of promoting local commerce, without demonstrating the existence of any harmful impact.”