A Beverly Hills rabbi is fighting a June order from the city to cease holding prayers in his house, following months of investigations and surveillance of his home.
Rabbi Levi Illulian, who began inviting friends, family and neighbors to pray and eat Shabbos meals in his home last year, was hit with an order to cease the activities following two investigations by city officials who responded to complaints from people in the neighborhood. The gatherings began as a means to support an ill Holocaust survivor who was unable to attend synagogue services.
The “notice of violation” order sent to the rabbi threatens him with civil and even criminal proceedings should he continue to host prayer groups.
Rabbi Illulian is being represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom advocacy group, as well as the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher.
The attorneys say that aside from the private nature of the gatherings, the first amendment guarantees citizens’ rights to gather for religious purposes, and use of buildings for religious activities is protected under the federal Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
“We think that RLUIPA doesn’t just protect corporate religious worship, if you will. We think RLUIPA applies to private gatherings within a person’s home; the law is broad enough to cover both of those things,” attorney Ryan Gardner of First Liberty Institute told Hamodia.
“Rabbi Illulian has a constitutional right to engage in religious exercise at his home with family or friends, free from government burden and interference,” Gardner said in a statement released by First Liberty Institute together with Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. “Beverly Hills is a diverse city that should welcome this Rabbi and protect his freedom to live out his faith. The city should stop its harassment of Rabbi Illulian immediately.”
“It is chilling that Beverly Hills officials have resorted to surveilling a small group of Jewish residents who meet together for worship,´ Elizabeth Kiernan of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher said in the statement. “The law and constitution protect his right to host gatherings of family and friends to meet their spiritual needs.”
Lawyers for the city argue that the home is not zoned for religious gatherings and that the presence of those assembled causes harm to the neighborhood.
Rabbi Illulian’s attorneys point out that similar-sized gatherings in local residents’ homes are held routinely, and are never investigated.
The first investigation by the city was conducted in February after receiving complaints from local residents, and was closed within a month, having determined the complaints unfounded, Gardner told Hamodia.
A second investigation was opened in March, however, and it culminated with the cessation order.
“We’re puzzled about the whole thing, because we don’t understand what changed between the initial conclusion and when they started back up again, because in our in our view, nothing has changed,” Gardner said.
For several months, investigators have invaded the privacy of the rabbi and his family, according to Gardner. “They’ve been engaging in more and more invasive observation of the rabbi ever since, including things like engaging in stakeouts outside of his home, photographing the people coming and going from it, etc..”
The order would force the rabbi to “cease holding any religious activities in his home with people who are not residents of the home,” Gardner said.
The complaints lodged with the city included allegations that guests were parking incorrectly, and that there was more garbage in the receptacles than previously.
“They have an issue with people parking, perhaps in front of their homes,” Gardner said. “which I would caveat there that the rabbi is very sensitive to these things, and has asked his people to be sensitive to parking issues and to park further away for those that drive, but not everybody drives, and on the Sabbath, no one is driving there…for a lot of people this is a location for them to walk to, because going anywhere else would be unfeasible.
“They’ve also complained about trash being in the in the alleyway. But the funny thing there is the trash they’re complaining about was put in a receptacle…it seems they’re upset because there’s more trash in the receptacle than there was before. So again, we’re not seeing the harm.
“What we see is a man who is very considerate of his neighbors, who is just seeking to live out his religious beliefs, and to provide support for the other Jewish members of his family, friends and neighbors.”
Gardner says that Rabbi Illulian feels “targeted…he feels scared.
“You can imagine having city officials sitting outside your home every single day, watching who’s coming and going…I think that would make anybody nervous. It’s the type of stuff you expect to see on a criminal stakeout for serious criminal activity, not for people who are gathering to pray.”
When asked if he believes Rabbi Illulian is being targeted due to antisemitic bias, Gardner said it isn’t clear, but he contends that the city is using a double-standard with regards to religious gatherings and secular events. “It’s, difficult to say at this point. What we do think is that religious activity is being treated unequally compared to secular activity occurring in the neighborhood. We understand that many other people in the neighborhood host [game] nights, dinner parties, you name it, and this is Beverly Hills we’re talking about so you can imagine the types of activities that people have in the large gatherings that people in those neighborhoods engage in.”