OUTREMONT, Montreal – Members of the chassidic community are vowing to go to court after Outremont adopted a controversial rezoning bylaw Dec. 7 banning new houses of worship on and around Laurier and Bernard avenues.
After a 2-½-hour discussion with a capacity audience of about 60, the borough council voted 4-1 in favour of amendments affecting its busiest commercial arteries.
In a repeat of the result at the proposed modifications’ first reading on Nov. 16, Mindy Pollak, who is chassidic, was the only councillor voting against it.
As is common is controversial zoning matters, a public register is expected to be opened, and if a still-to-be-determined sufficient number of citizens sign it, the issue will likely go to a referendum.
The council went ahead despite receiving a lawyer’s letter on Dec. 4 demanding that the vote be postponed.
Jacob Karmel and Alex Werzberger, with the support of a large number of members of the chassidic community, have retained prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Grey to fight the rezoning.
They feel the changes target their community, which largely lives in proximity to the affected zones and had recently applied to open another synagogue in the area.
They also object to the designation of a zone in the northeast corner of the borough for any future houses of worship.
Grey objects that the modifications do not take into account the needs of the chassidic community, which is growing at a faster rate than the rest of the population.
“It is clear that the regulation targets them directly, not with the goal of satisfying their needs, but with the goal of bullying them,” the letter states. “Furthermore, Outremont has an unfortunate history of strained relations with this community.”
An act of “bad faith”
Grey notes that the designated zone for houses of worship is a 20- to 30-minute walk from where most of the community lives.
Adopting the bylaw would be an act of “bad faith,” as a majority spoke against it at a public consultation on Dec. 1.
The letter demands that the borough suspend going ahead and conduct both a demographic study and a study of its citizens’ needs, particularly the religious communities.
The council said it is rezoning in an effort to “revitalize” its commercial districts based on a report of the urban planning department.
Borough Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars said several other Montreal boroughs have adopted similar regulations restricting houses of worship in commercial districts.
On the day of the vote, Outremont council, as well as Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, also received a letter signed by 25 people, mainly non-chassidic and living in Outremont and elsewhere, who expressed their “grave concern” over the rezoning.
Among the signatories are McGill University law professors Shauna Van Praagh and Tina Piper, lawyers Yves Corriveau and Martha Shea, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières professor Sylvie Taschereau, as well as rabbis Ascher Grunfeld and Levi Roth of, respectively, the Vizhnitz and Belz communities.
They say the borough should have collected “objective and measurable data” to support the need for these changes, and not one complaint about houses of worship in their midst was recorded from a merchant in the affected zones.
“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 write.
Bylaw detracts from “human dignity”
Confining all religious establishments to one small area will cause logistical problems, such as traffic congestion, as well as detract from “human dignity.”
“Corralling all people of faith into one area based on evidence-free decision-making contravenes the spirit of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms, the Montreal Declaration on Living Together [signed this past June] and the commitments made by our city as part of our membership in the Canadian and International Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination,” the letter reads.
The signatories say Outremont could learn from the neighbouring Plateau Mont-Royal borough, where businesses are now thriving beside places of worship on the previously derelict area around Park and Bernard avenues.
Meanwhile, Luc Ferrandez, leader of the opposition Projet Montréal, also spoke out against Outremont’s move, saying it is causing anger and resentment. He urges an immediate city-wide public consultation on how best to integrate new houses of worship in a spirit of tolerance.
That approach is being endorsed by CRARR (Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations), a non-profit organization that fights discrimination.
CRARR is critical of Outremont’s plan, saying it has caused “social tensions,” infringes on rights, and is vague in its definition of “lieux de culte” (places of worship) and “activités religieuses” (religious activities).
“Montreal must have a coherent policy and vision, based on the rule of law and the principles and traditions of equality, diversity and inclusion, and supported by objective economic and social analyses,” said CRARR executive director Fo Niemi.