New lawsuit filed over synagogue in deed-restricted neighborhood in SW Houston

HOUSTON – An Orthodox Jewish congregation has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Houston in hopes of preventing the city from enforcing a deed restriction that could put an end to services at the congregation’s current location.

For Heimish of Houston, a house in the southwest part of the city has also served as a place of worship for about two years.

“We use it for prayer and study,” said Yakov Wohlgelernter, a member of the congregation.

Because of his faith, Wohlgelernter said he cannot drive to services on Saturdays and needs to be able to walk.

“I have a home in this neighborhood and I need to have a synagogue that is close by that I’m able to pray in,” Wohlgelernter said. “We have looked at other options but nothing else could work besides for having a synagogue in your neighborhood.”

The property is located in a residential community. According to the lawsuit, both the property and surrounding neighborhood are restricted by deed for residential use only.

The city sent a letter to Heimish in July 2020 demanding all activities cease on the property within 15 days or “face further legal action,” including a fine of up to $1,000 per day, court records state.

“We hope for them to continue to meet and practice their faith as the law requires,” said Justin Butterfield, deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute. The organization is representing the congregation.

The legal complaint doesn’t say what prompted the city’s actions but two neighbors told KPRC2 off-camera that they are upset the house is being used as a synagogue. The two neighbors raised concerns about issues like parking and traffic during the week, in addition to the deed restriction.

“Deed restrictions are subject to restrictions on being used to violate people’s religious freedom and we think that’s what the city is doing here,” Butterfield said.

First Liberty accused the city of targeting the congregation. The institute said other businesses and houses of worship are operating in the same neighborhood as Heimish.

“Now that a lawsuit has been filed, it will run its course in a court of law,” said Mary Benton, director of communications for the mayor’s office.