Congregants at oldest U.S. synagogue ask high court to step in

By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Congregants at the oldest synagogue in the United States asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to review a decision giving a New York congregation control of Rhode Island's Touro Synagogue and a set of bells valued in the millions.

Lawyers for Newport's Congregation Jeshuat Israel asked for a review of last year's decision by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that it presents important constitutional issues surrounding religious liberty.

"If allowed to stand and be followed, the decision will fundamentally alter how ordinary disputes involving religious parties are tried and decided, and introduce an element of arbitrariness and cherry-picking by courts as to what secular evidence may be considered or ignored in any particular case," lawyer Gary Naftalis wrote in the filing.

He argued that the ruling in favor of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan unfairly disregarded secular evidence and establishes a two-tiered legal regime: one for religious groups and another for those that are secular.

Lou Solomon, a lawyer for the New York congregation and also the head of its board, said the request is "unfortunate," but it's their right. He said the other side was continuing to undermine their "ability to regain the harmonious relations" and had "presented absolutely no reason for the Supreme Court to review much less disturb the decision of the First Circuit."

Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site. The synagogue was visited by George Washington in 1790, and he later sent its congregants a letter declaring that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Chief Justice John Roberts cited that passage just a few months ago, when he wrote the decision upholding President Donald Trump's ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries, Naftalis noted in his filing.

Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation's oldest Jewish congregation, became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Congregation Jeshuat Israel has worshipped there since the late 1800s, and the two sides have periodically fought since then over who controls Touro.

The First Circuit last year found that the Manhattan congregation controls Touro under terms of an agreement struck amid one such power struggle in 1903. The Newport congregation argues the appeals court's decision ignored ample other evidence from the trial, as well as the lower court's decision that placed ownership in their hands.

The lawsuit began when the Newport congregation, which has struggled with money, came up with a plan to sell one of its two sets of Colonial-era Torah bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. The New York congregation objected, arguing the sale would violate religious law.

Published: Wed, Oct 24, 2018