In one Philadelphia luxury condominium building, mezuzahs are in but torans are out.
Both are religious symbols of faith that adherents believe they are called to display in their doorways. A mezuzah is a small scroll containing passages from the Torah and usually kept in a small case or container affixed to the exterior of a home’s doorway. A toran is a Hindu symbol of welcome that usually hangs above a home’s door.
Akhilesh Tripathi, a native of India who lives in Philadelphia, has a toran made of gold-colored metal chains, bells and multicolored balls of fabric. It was a gift from his daughter and was blessed by a Hindu priest before he hung it above his doorway when he moved into his condo in 2009, according to Philadelphia’s The Inquirer.
“The symbol of toran is saying this house is blessed with God and Lakshmiji and you are welcome here,” Tripathi, referring to the Hindu goddess of prosperity, told the paper. “This is my upbringing and my deeply embedded religious belief.”
Tripathi didn’t run into any problems with displaying his toran until February, when the homeowners association at the Murano – a distinctive, glass-encased residential skyscraper where condos reportedly sell for $300,000 to $900,000 – adopted new rules about the display of holiday decorations and religious symbols on and around doors.
The new policy allows that “a small religious article (such as a Mezuzah or the like) may be attached to the exterior frame of a Unit door, but not to the door itself.” The policy does not establish a time limit for religious symbols, but does set up time frames for holiday-specific displays. Both religious and holiday displays “of a reasonable size and nature must be approved by the Executive Board.”
Tripathi was contacted in April by a property manager who said that he would have to remove his toran unless he could show that it was related to a holiday and would be a temporary display. Even after Tripathi explained that his toran was a religious symbol that he planned to display permanently, the property manager told him the board decided he had to remove it.
Tripathi last week filed a federal lawsuit, Tripathi v. Murano Condominium Association, alleging that the Murano’s policy violates the Fair Housing Act’s protections against religious discrimination.
“The Association plainly constructed the regulation … [based] on the religious symbol of one religion (the mezuzah) and has used that religious standard to judge other religious symbols. This is discriminatory,” the suit asserts. Additionally, Tripathi’s lawsuit alleges that the policy opens the door for religious bias by giving the association the right to decide whether a religious symbol is “of a reasonable size and nature.”
Tripathi’s situation is not unheard of. In 2009, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Jewish family was entitled to a trial on their claim of religious discrimination when the management of their Chicago high-rise refused to allow them to display mezuzahs; the building’s management even went so far as to remove a mezuzah from one family member’s apartment amid funeral rituals. The case ultimately was settled.
In response to the case, Illinois passed a “mezuzah law” to ensure that homeowners associations had to make reasonable accommodations for the display of religious symbols. States including Connecticut, Florida and Texas have passed similar laws, often in reaction to similar cases of discrimination. A Jewish woman in Connecticut, for instance, had been barred from displaying a mezuzah even though other residents could display crucifixes and Christmas and Easter decorations.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of The National Synagogue Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C., in a 2012 Huffington Post column noted that some homeowners associations have used policies barring the display of religious symbols as a means to keep out members of faiths deemed “undesirable.”
Whether they are considering Jewish mezuzahs, Hindu torans, Christian crosses or another faith's symbols, homeowners associations should treat all faiths equally and provide for reasonable accommodations for people to practice their beliefs. (And to be honest, looking at the boring gray walls of the Murano, Tripathi’s colorful toran is a welcoming sight.)
(Photos: Top – Akhilesh Tripathi's Hindu toran draped above his apartment door. Bottom – Tripathi inside his apartment. Credit: Screenshots from NBC 10 in Philadelphia.)