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Opinion Outremont: The right to worship, and build, must apply to all

Yves Boisvert is a columnist for La Presse.

Can a city challenge the religious rights of a minority in a referendum? The mayor of the bourgeois Outremont borough in Montreal sees no problem with that.

Last week, citizens of a small portion of the borough were asked if they support the ban of new "places of worship" on a commercial street. The majority voted to uphold the ban.

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In theory, the prohibition targets all religions. But its effect is to prevent the construction of a new synagogue for the Jewish ultraorthodox Hasidic community. That's because Hasidism makes up 25 per cent of the 24,000-person population in Outremont. Built on a mountainside, the former city now part of Montreal is the birthplace of Pierre Trudeau and traditionally the home of the French-Canadian elite.

Tensions have been rising for years between the Hasidic community and citizens of the surrounding streets over a variety of issues. Tickets for parking on Sabbath, construction of Sukkot booths, a bylaw banning bathing suits in parks requested by the community (and declared void by the court), a private bus schedule and many other issues provoked constant debates over the years. The community had to go to court to obtain the right to install an eruv, a series of strings hung around a neighbourhood that allows observers to do activities otherwise proscribed on the Sabbath.

Last year, a real estate leader of the community obtained a permit to build a new synagogue on Bernard Street. It will open in January. There is only one other Hasidic synagogue on that commercial street and four in the borough. Soon after the permit was issued, the borough council voted for a ban on any future place of worship on that street. There are spots in more remote places, near train tracks, and borough Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars told the Montreal Gazette that the community is invited to build there. To La Presse, she said the only objective of that zoning rule was to protect the battling commercial street.

With large families, the community is slowly but surely expanding. Synagogues are jam packed. Rough winters and a religious prohibition to drive a car on Sabbath make it essential to find a nearby location.

Hasidic leaders expressed their disappointment over the referendum. They suspect the ban is a clear attempt at limiting their development, if not pushing them outside Outremont.

"We're not talking about the Hasidic community," Ms. Cinq-Mars said, insisting that the ban applies equally to all religious groups.

Meanwhile, just a few streets further east, the Mile-End/Plateau borough, where Mordecai Richler was born, seems to find accommodations easily with Hasidic leaders. There are 10 synagogues there and borough Mayor Luc Ferrandez says he only has to sit with leaders to find solutions and compromises. "They have the right to establish places of worship in their neighbourhood; you have to be very arrogant to deny them that right," he told La Presse.

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Indeed, a legal challenge is in the making. Fundamental rights cannot be cancelled by the majority rule. Even if it applies equally to all, the zoning effectively targets a very specific religious group. As French writer Anatole France famously said: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread."

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