A federal court ruled a Florida county cannot prohibit a rabbi from holding prayer and worship services in his own home.

Rabbi Joseph Konikov of Orlando was faced with two land-use ordinance violations filed by Orange County.

“Americans have the right to meet in their homes for prayer or to study religious materials without government interference,” said Rick Nelson, head of the American Liberties Institute, a group allied with the Alliance Defense Fund.

In 2001, Konikov and his family were ordered by code enforcement officers to stop holding prayer meetings in their home, near Disney World, alleging he was in violation of local laws that forbade “operating a synagogue or any function related to a synagogue and/or church services. …”

The county issued Konikov another code violation in February 2002, and at a hearing the following month, he was given 60 days to stop the prayer gatherings or be fined $50 per day.

The fines now have added up to nearly $56,000.

In March 2002, Konikov filed his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida after the county refused to negotiate a settlement.

The district court initially dismissed the case, ruling the county’s ordinance was permissible, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta later ruled the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The appeals court said ordinance was so “vague” that even the county’s code enforcement officers were confused about how to properly apply it.

In its unanimous opinion, the 11th Circuit wrote, “If the assembly’s purpose was to celebrate birthdays, holidays, or a simple family dinner, that would not constitute a violation. In other words, a group meeting with the same frequency as Konikov’s would not violate the Code, so long as religion is not discussed. This is the heart of our discomfort with the enforcement of this provision.”

The 11th Circuit’s remanded the case back to the district court, which reviewed the questions for resolution Friday and found the ordinance to be in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and unconstitutionally vague.



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