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Rabbi Sues Hawaii County Over Mounting Fines for Hosting Small Religious Gatherings in His Home
By News Release @ 4:19 PM :: 1801 Views :: Hawaii County , First Amendment

Jewish Rabbi Sues County Over Mounting Fines for Hosting Small Religious Gatherings in His Home

Lawsuit seeks relief from growing fines of $40,000+ and end to harassment leveled against Rabbi Levi Gerlitzky by county officials for using home for religious gatherings.

News Release from First Liberty Institute, Feb 14, 2024

Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i–First Liberty Institute, Robert Christensen, and the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher filed a federal lawsuit against county officials on the Big Island of Hawai’i after they fined a local Rabbi for hosting small religious gatherings in his home.

You can read the complaint here.

“Rabbi Gerlitzky has a constitutional right to engage in religious activities in his home with family or friends in the Jewish community, free from government burden and interference,” said Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “By levying fines on religious gatherings while allowing similar secular in-home gatherings like Super Bowl parties and book clubs to continue without penalty, the County violates both the U.S. Constitution and federal law.”

Elizabeth Kiernan of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher said, “The law and Constitution protect Rabbi Gerlitzky’s right to host gatherings of family and friends in his home to meet their spiritual needs.”

Prerak Shah of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher agreed, “No one in this country should be punished for praying in their own home.”

R.J. Christensen said, “Americans of all faiths meet in homes for prayer meetings everyday.  It is chilling that Hawaii County officials have resorted to serving fines to this small group of Jewish residents for doing just that.”

Since 2017, Rabbi Gerlitzky has lived on the Big Island to serve the needs of the small Jewish community through the Chabad Jewish Center of the Big Island, and he often invites members of his community to his home.  Hosting such gatherings at his home is necessary since there are no public options within walking distance that offer kosher kitchen facilities.  To comply with the Sabbath restrictions of his Orthodox faith, some of the Rabbi’s guests, which rarely exceeds 30 people, will walk to the Rabbi’s home for Shabbat meals, occasional prayer meetings, and other Sabbath observances such as Passover. Attorneys state that the accumulating fines impose a substantial burden on Rabbi Gerlitzky’s religious practice without showing a compelling government interest.

According to the complaint, “Even though secular and other religious gatherings regularly take place in Rabbi Gerlitzky’s neighborhood unmolested, Defendants have unlawfully imposed a substantial burden on Rabbi Gerlitzky and the Center, ordering the Center to pay thousands of dollars in fines for its religious gatherings and denying Rabbi Gerlitzky a permit to host meetings for the Center at his home until he first brings his home up to all commercial standards—a burden that is not feasible for Rabbi Gerlitzky and the Center to meet.”

While other homes in the area are permitted to host regular social gatherings, groups meeting for religious purposes are only permitted when a use permit is submitted and approved by the county.

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FLI: Hawaii Rabbi Harassed for Hosting Religious Gatherings at Home

About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

Nov 2023: Kona rabbi fined - West Hawaii Today

EH: Hawaiʻi County, Planning Director Accused Of Bias Against Jews in Federal Complaint (environment-hawaii.org)

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