December 2018 Church & State - December 2018

Supreme Court Asked To Hear Case Involving Dispute Over Historic Rhode Island Synagogue

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on a dispute regarding the ownership of a historic synagogue in Rhode Island that played a role in the development of religious liberty in America.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which meets at Touro Synagogue in Newport, has asked the high court to hear an appeal of a lower court’s ruling giving control of the synagogue and some of its contents to Shearith Israel, a congregation based in New York City.

The two congregations have been closely related for hundreds of years. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Shearith Israel became a trustee of Touro Synagogue during the Revolutionary War, when many Jews fled Newport. Since then, the congregations have signed contracts to define their relationship.

Tensions arose in 2012 when the leadership of Jeshuat Israel, asserting that they needed to put the congregation on sounder financial footing, sought to sell some artifacts valued at millions of dollars. Shearith Israel went to court to block the sale, asserting that it is the rightful owner of Touro Synagogue and its possessions.

A federal court ruled in favor of Jeshuat Israel in 2016, but Shearith Israel appealed, and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August reversed the decision. The appeals panel, in a decision written by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who was sitting on the panel by special designation, found that Jeshuat Israel was merely a tenant.

In a filing before the Supreme Court in the Congregation Jeshuat Israel v. Congregation Shearith Israel case, Congregation Jeshuat argues that the appeals court ruling restricts its religious liberty, reported the Providence Journal.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that civil courts may not resolve property disputes among houses of worship “on the basis of religious doctrine and practice.” However, courts may apply “neutral principles” of law, such as examining secular contracts and trusts, to resolve disputes.

Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest synagogue, was designated a national historic site in 1946 and every year draws many visitors. The congregation is famous for a letter it received from President George Washington in 1790.

In the letter, Washington assured Jews that their right to practice their faith would be protected in America.

“The citizens of the United States of America,” Washington observed in the letter, “have a right to applaud themselves for having given to man­kind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy – a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, hap­pily, the Government of the Un­ited States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

On Aug. 17, 1790, Washington visited Newport. Many historians believe the visit was part of strategy to drum up support for the Bill of Rights, which was ratified the following year.

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