May 7, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:10 pm
THE ARTFUL STRATEGIST

Religion, zoning mix volatile in Litchfield

The late, great Connecticut political kingpin, John Bailey, famous for his somewhat cynical Rainbow Coalition-style putting together of political tickets, used to say that his favorite kind of Jewish candidate looked and sounded like a Protestant.

The image of John's WASP-Jew came to mind as a long, tedious, embarrassing and, to some extent, hilarious zoning dispute unrolled in Litchfield, pitting an Orthodox Jewish sect against the zoning, land use and historic preservation morass that is par for the course in the leafy little town.

For years, the Chabad Lubavitch (as close as the Jewish faith has to the evangelical fervor and growth enthusiasm of the conservative Protestant Jesus freaks) in Litchfield County has been negotiating to build a significant expansion of its smallish beachhead in the Litchfield Historic District.

In technical land-use law terminology, this particular case is known as "icky." Litchfield tends to view the construction of, tinkering with, or modification of almost anything on or near the historic green as equivalent to building a nuclear power plant in an elementary school playground. There is no such thing as a smooth ride through the zoning/preservation hell that is Litchfield.

That being said, the Chabad (and some objective outsiders as well) sensed that the lack of enthusiasm for this particular project was energized in part by some wee bit of discomfort at a Jewish residential, worship and educational presence plopped near the green — whether or not all the zoning hurdles could be overcome.

Even the presence of a Star of David prominently displayed became a topic of discussion — including some discomfort expressed by a Jewish member of the Historic District Commission.

Through it all, the unease was palpable. Was this typical zoning misery inflicted on all comers (some Protestant churches had been allowed to tinker)? Was this subtle anti-Semitism? Was this distaste for the "other," be they Jew or anyone else that didn't fit the notion of what made the Litchfield green "historic?"

The case went to federal court in February, where U.S. District Judge Janet Hall tossed it out, without trial, for which she will earn a special place in Heaven, be it Christian or Jewish. How would you have enjoyed sitting on that jury?

The Chabad appealed the decision last month, with the understanding that the appeals court jurists have probably dived under their desks, hoping that it will go away.

These kinds of cases pop up with some regularity, often involving small evangelical/Pentacostal churches that wish to open up (sometimes for "home worship"), with neighbors complaining that making joyous noise unto the Lord is often, well, very noisy. Of course, when the churches are black, the Chabad-Litchfield kind of uncertainty comes into play.

Congress, in its own bumbling way, has offered up two pieces of hideous legislation in recent years to "protect" religious institutions from discrimination that discourages their activities. One version was laughed out of court; the other just sits there, in its incomprehensible way, mocking those who try to make these kinds of squeamish land use/cultural problems into some sort of legal precision.

The "compelling government interest" needed to discourage religious activity is as much murky political theology as it is a matter of law — and, of course, the issue becomes more problematic when race or religion is a part of the mix.

Yes, the Chabad Lubavitch, true to their observant nature in clothing and worship, wouldn't have been picked by John Bailey run for any office at all. Is that why the Litchfield nitpickers turned them down? Only God knows for sure.

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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