The Mezuzah Needs Federal Protection

It is a fundamental requirement of Jewish law that all Jews place a mezuzah on the doorpost of their home. Jewish law actually requires that it be placed on the right side of every room in the home–excluding the bathroom. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment which contains two handwritten paragraphs from the Torah. An average mezuzah scroll cost a mere thirty dollars, but for a Jew its value is priceless.

The mezuzah is believed to provide physical and spiritual protection for the home. The paragraphs written on the parchment contain the essential declaration of Jewish faith–the Shema. It is appropriate to check the mezuzah scrolls on a regular basis to make sure that not even one letter has faded. It is also appropriate to look at the mezuzah and consider what it represents each and every time one walks into a room.

Since many people know that a Jew–and especially an Orthodox Jew–cannot live in a home without a mezuzah, the attempt to keep out “undesirable” Orthodox Jews can sometimes come in the form of prohibiting people from putting up mezuzahs on their doorposts. Yes, unfortunately, even in America in the year 2012, there are still places that are trying to exclude Jews.

A recent case in Stratford, Connecticut illustrates this point.

Barbara Cadranel, a Stanford Condominium owner, was given a gift of a mezuzah by her children. When she put up the mezuzah she was told by the condominium that she would be fined $50 a day for every day she left the mezuzah up. The condominium allowed for crucifixes, and Easter and Christmas decorations to be displayed in public places, but it was still forbidding Ms. Cadranel from displaying a mezuzah.

A first amendment expert, attorney Steve Lieberman of the DC law firm Rothwell, Figg, Ernst, and Manbeck told me the condominium was definitely wrong:

“The Federal courts have been very clear that the Fair Housing Acts prohibits condo associations and landlords from harassing or discriminating against tenants based on their religion. In the 2009 case of Bloch v. Frischholz, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sitting en banc, explained that, in addition to prohibiting discrimination in the rental or sale process, the Fair Housing Act also applies to some types of discrimination that occurs, for example, after a tenant has moved in. In that case, the Court ruled that a tenant could proceed with her case against the condominium association after the association had forced the tenant to remove her mezuzah.”

After Ms. Cadranel’s attorney, Alyza Lewin of Washington D.C., contacted the condominium board, the attorney for the condominium obstinately continued to claim that Ms. Cadranel was violating condominium policy. The attorney for the condominium, Kurt Ahlberg even responded by sending a letter to Ms. Cadranel’s attorney asking for the attorney to “admonish” her and instruct her to remove her mezuzah. It was only after the condominium received an outpouring of international condemnation that Mr. Ahlberg backed off and apologized and permitted the mezuzah to stay up.

But we should not be satisfied with Ahlberg’s half-hearted apology and we should not allow the matter to rest.

All too often Jewish residents are intimidated into not putting up a mezuzah even though it is their right. One member of my congregation resides in a sorority on a major college campus. Her sorority has told her that she can’t place a mezuzah on the door that leads to the hallway even though not putting up the mezuzah is a violation of her religion. This is despite the fact that the campus is filled with Christian ornaments around the holidays.

Perhaps Federal legislation would help.

Here is what Alyza Lewin told me: “Texas, Florida and Illinois have passed laws to protect residents and to ensure that individuals may affix religious items, such as a mezuzah, to their door posts. As a result of Ms. Cadranel’s episode in Connecticut, the Connecticut legislature has introduced similar legislation. Rather than tackle the problem piecemeal, however, state by state, it would be preferable for the U.S. Congress to enact federal legislation that would protect residents in residences covered by federal housing laws who, out of a sincere religious belief, wish to affix a religious item (like a mezuzah) to their door post.”

Such Federal legislation was once proposed by Jerrold Nadler. In 2008 he introduced The Freedom of Religious Expression in the Home Act.

The summary of this act states that it: “Makes it unlawful to establish a rule or policy that prevents a person from displaying, on the basis of that person’s religious belief, a religious symbol, object, or sign on the door, doorpost, entrance, or otherwise on the exterior of that person’s dwelling, or that is visible from the exterior of that dwelling, unless the rule or policy is reasonable and is necessary to prevent significant damage to property, physical harm to persons, a public nuisance, or similar undue hardship.”

Unfortunately on September 17, 2008 it was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary where it has languished ever since. The condominium owners in Stratford have reminded us that this bill now needs to become a law.