How the Law Can Stop Those Who Are Keeping Jews from Keeping Shabbat

July 19, 2021 | Michael A. Helfand
About the author: Michael A. Helfand is an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and associate director of Pepperdine’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies.

As Orthodox Jews are forbidden from using electricity on the Sabbath, many who live in high-rise apartment buildings rely on Gentile doormen to press the elevator buttons for them. The Orthodox residents at a New Jersey apartment building, all of whom are elderly and some infirm, did the same—until they discovered that the co-op board had instructed the doormen not to help them. In response, they have sued in federal court. Michael A. Helfand writes:

In the present case, Kurlansky v. 1530 Owners Corp., the plaintiffs have alleged building policies and comments from co-op board members that, if proven true, can only be described as discriminatory. Some of the plaintiffs have alleged hearing co-op board members say that they did not want “too many of those types of Jews” in the building.

How can the law respond to [such] injustices? First and foremost, courts can vigorously apply state and federal laws—such as the Fair Housing Act—that prohibit religious discrimination when it comes to housing services and facilities. In recent religious-liberty cases, the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that government agents cannot act with bias and exclude religious institutions from government benefits. Federal and state anti-discrimination laws apply that same logic to various private actors with respect to employment, zoning, and housing. Courts must similarly not hesitate when presented with evidence of such animus to call out those who manipulate local power in the name of religious discrimination.

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