The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on a dispute regarding the ownership of a historic synagogue in Rhode Island that played a role in the development of religious liberty in America.
Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which meets atTouro Synagogue in Newport, has asked the high court to hear an appeal of a lower court's ruling giving control of the synagogue and some of its contents to Shearith Israel, a congregation based in New York City.
The two congregations have been closely related for hundreds of years. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Shearith Israel became a trustee of Touro Synagogue during the Revolutionary War, when many Jews fled Newport. Since then, the congregations have signed contracts to define their relationship.
Tensions arose in 2012 when the leadership of Jeshuat Israel, asserting that they needed to put the congregation on sounder financial footing, sought to sell some artifacts valued at millions of dollars. Shearith Israel went to court to block the sale, asserting that it is the rightful owner of Touro Synagogue and its possessions.
A federal court ruled in favor of Jeshuat Israel in 2016, but Shearith Israel appealed, and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August reversed the decision. The appeals panel, in a decision written by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who was sitting on the panel by special designation, found that Jeshuat Israel was merely a tenant.
In a filing before the Supreme Court in the Congregation Jeshuat Israel v. Congregation Shearith Israel case, Congregation Jeshuat argues that the appeals court ruling restricts its religious liberty, reported the Providence Journal.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that civil courts may not resolve property disputes among houses of worship "on the basis of religious doctrine and practice." However, courts may apply "neutral principles" of...