Vigil planned to support Rabbi in Portland zoning dispute

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 20, 2008 12:00 am

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PORTLAND, Maine – People from many religious faiths are expected to rally at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 21, at City Hall Plaza to support a Portland rabbi locked in a zoning dispute with the city. The “Vigil for Religious Liberty” will include leaders from several faith traditions who are deeply opposed to government interference in religion.

“One of the most cherished parts of our Constitution is the freedom to practice our religion,” said Brianna Twofoot, Field Organizer with the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation, who is coordinating the vigil. “There is no clearer bright line in American law than that protecting religion from government interference.”

On May 22, a letter was hand delivered to Rabbi Moshe Wilansky from Portland zoning administrator Marge Schmuckal ordering him to cease using his residence as a “place of worship,” which is only permitted in that zoning district as an accessory use. Rabbi Wilansky is not entitled to a conditional use permit because his lot size is too small. Schmuckal’s ruling has been appealed to the Zoning Appeals Board, and the matter will be heard in City Council Chambers Aug. 21 at 6:30 p.m.

Many religious leaders are concerned about the City of Portland’s action, which could have serious ramifications for other religious activities. Letters to the editor in local newspapers have likened the Rabbi’s Sabbath gatherings to prayer meetings they hold in their own homes.

One of the religious leaders speaking at the rally will be Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, the Hispanic Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine and Executive Director of Tengo Voz. She explained her participation in the vigil by observing the historic importance of home worship to the church.

“House church has been going on for hundreds of years,” said Rev. Rincon. “Thank God, Jesus and saints such as Mother Teresa moved on spirit and worshiped in the space that God provided for them. We need to seriously pause, reflect and study a zoning law that violates individuals’ rights to practice their religious beliefs in fellowship in their own homes.”

Other speakers at the rally will include Eric Smith of the Maine Council of Churches, and Zachary Heiden of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, as well as Rabbi Wilansky.

Following the rally, the public is invited to attend the meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals in the City Council Chambers at Portland City Hall. That hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m.

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