A man is suing the city of University Heights and Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan in his individual and official capacity in federal court, alleging civil rights violations after he said he was singled out for selective enforcement of city ordinances and his attempts to hold Jewish prayer services in his home were shut down.
Filed on behalf of Daniel Grand, the lawsuit by Jonathan Gross of the Clevenger Firm in Baltimore said the mayor was motivated by “animus against Orthodox Jews” and his and the city’s actions were part of a “systematic campaign” to prevent the Orthodox community from growing in University Heights.
Gross told the Cleveland Jewish News his client wants to be able to hold prayer services in his home and to be able to have damages remedied. And ultimately, Gross said, he hopes the case will have a much broader impact.
“Part of the lawsuit is to make sure that not only does this not happen anymore in University Heights, but we want to send a signal throughout the country that these unconstitutional zoning codes that give the cities unbridled discretion to decide who can operate a house of worship in a city … that this is a warning to everyone, that leads to some kind of reform nationwide,” Gross said. “We have big ambitions for this case.”
In the complaint, filed Sept. 9 in U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Ohio, Grand said he invited men to pray with him in his Miramar Boulevard home in January 2021. Brennan first confronted him that same month, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit said the city’s restrictions on the location of houses of worships is unconstitutional and violates the Ohio constitution and Ohio common law, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“The city does not comment on pending litigation,” Mike Cook, University Heights communications and civic engagement director, wrote the CJN in a Sept. 15 email.
Michele Weiss, vice mayor, said University Heights City Council met on the matter Sept. 19.
“We met in executive session and we were told to say ‘no comment’ to everything.” Weiss told the CJN Sept. 21.
The 48-page, 17-count lawsuit alleges that defendants violated Grand’s First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, including his right to free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly. It also alleges that Grand was subject to harassment and intimidation based on “personal animus” by the mayor.
In addition, the lawsuit said the actions of Brennan and the city violate provisions of the federal Religious Land Use and Insitutionalized Persons Act, which guarantees people the right to worship on their property, along with sections of the Ohio Constitution pertaining to right to worship, right to freedom from direct or indirect government encroachment on free exercise of religion, Ohio common law regarding invasion of privacy, as well as the Ohio public records law.
The lawsuit makes 20 demands, including allowing Grand to hold services at his home, and seeks monetary damages including compensatory, emotional and punitive damages, fees and costs and other relief. It also seeks “an order declaring that the city unlawfully and unconstitutionally discriminated against (Grand) based on his religion and based on personal animus.”
It also seeks “an award of statutory fees pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 248(c)(1)(B), for every instance that Brennan used fear and intimidation to prevent (Grand) from exercising his religion.”
Gross said a pattern of discrimination against Orthodox Jews has been seen in other places.
“The main paradigm is the Lakewood (N.J.) area and the surrounding areas of Jackson and Toms River. And that’s certainly in the public record,” Gross told the CJN Sept. 15. “That’s been national news about how the Orthodox Jewish community there has grown and the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox Jewish communities surrounding it have even said as much as they’re being invaded.”
Distinguishing the University Heights case from others like it, Gross said, is a personal element.
“It’s not only a case of religious discrimination, there’s just a real personal animus that there’s going on here,” he said. “I encourage people to just see that how much effort they went through to come up with a way to find a pretext to cite him for a parking violation that was remediated within hours is just astounding. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
According to the lawsuit, Brennan called Grand on Jan. 21, 2021 and said he was not allowed to have any type of religious gathering in his home without first obtaining a special use permit, under Chapter 1274 of the University Heights Code.
Grand allegedly answered Brennan saying he invited people over to his house to pray and was not trying to operate a synagogue, thus did not need a permit, according to the lawsuit. Brennan told him he did still need a permit or it would be a violation for “operating an illegal synagogue.”
Grand received an emailed cease-and-desist order from the city that same day.
Brennan allegedly went further, saying, “If you go ahead and do what you just described, you will be in violation of the cease-and-desist order and the city will take all legal means available to it.”
Grand emailed the city clerk the following day, according to the lawsuit, and filed an application to have friends at his house to pray.
A March 4, 2021, hearing held virtually on the matter drew more than 100 people.
“Prior to the meeting, Brennan coordinated with the opposition and circulated a map which highlighted all of the houses of city residents that he knew opposed plaintiff’s prayer group in pink, and also singled out Grand’s home in blue on the map,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also stated Brennan “arranged” that supporters of the prayer group who lived near Grand were not notified of the hearing.
“The meeting ended among shouting and yelling from the angry and hostile audience of residents that had hoped to see plaintiff’s application denied,” according to the lawsuit.
Grand withdrew his application March 23, 2021, prior to a continuation of the hearing.
Brennan announced at that date: “Let there be no confusion: Congregating at 2343 Miramar Blvd. or any other address located in a residence zoned U-1, without a special-use SUP is a violation of city law. I am hopeful that the wording of the withdrawal is not intended to suggest that congregating weekly at a residence to conduct activities consistent with those in a house of assembly does not require a special-use SUP. As recently as two months ago, the city brought suit against the organizers of another residential shul, one on Churchill Boulevard, and ultimately obtained a permanent injunction in court. To the community members who are here, let there be no question. There is no permission granted here to operate … a house of assembly or conduct activities consistent with one at 2343 Miramar Blvd. If you observe such activities – and I hope you do not – but if you do, you may report them to the city and the city will enforce its laws which exist for the benefit of the entire community and we will seek all appropriate remedies in court.”
The lawsuit stated, “Though the mayor said that all congregating at residential homes requires an SUP, in practice, the city has only enforced this draconian and unconstitutional application against Orthodox Jewish prayer groups.”
It also alleges Brennan’s actions were part of a plan to limit the placement of Orthodox synagogues to the eastern side of the city, known as “the Green Road ghetto,” according to the lawsuit.
The city filed three similar cease-and-desist letters between February and May 2021 against other Orthodox groups who planned to or were holding services in their homes.
Neighbors made antisemitic remarks to Grand including, “We don’t want your kind here,” according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Brennan viewed surveillance video allegedly set up by Grand’s neighbor, Jeffrey Porter, who is also named in the lawsuit. Porter, a retired police officer, set up three video cameras aimed at Grand’s property, according to the lawsuit.
Grand asked that the cameras be removed based on the belief that their presence violates the city’s privacy ordinance. The city has taken no action on those requests, according to the lawsuit.
Multiple attempts to reach Jeffery Porter were unsuccessful.
Also noted in the lawsuit, on his way to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah Sept. 7, 2021, Grand saw a man in a parked car.
“The man said he was part of a private security detail and that there were two others on the block and that the city police were aware of their presence and activities,” the lawsuit stated.
Grand then heard the man speaking on a cellphone, saying “Yes, Mr. Mayor,” according to the lawsuit.
“It was subsequently revealed at a city council meeting that Brennan authorized the hiring of a private investigator to sit outside of the home of an Orthodox Jewish family to spy on Orthodox Jewish residents and to gain information about Orthodox Jews praying in residential homes on one of the holiest days of the year,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit called that event “deeply traumatizing” to Grand.
Grand filed a public records request and learned that the mayor had a file on him that numbered more than a thousand pages. His house was skipped for garbage collection from May to July 2021, the lawsuit said.
“Brennan and the city abused the municipal power by using the city’s ordinances to persecute Grand, a law-abiding citizen, by unlawfully stretching extremely vague and inapplicable ordinances …” the lawsuit said.
In addition, University Heights Police Lt. Mark McArtor emailed police to note parking violations near Grand’s property and to make citations.
“Also be aware, there is a great deal of contention between this address and the surrounding neighbors since the 2343 resident applied to the Planning Commission for approval to operate a Schul [sic]. If you observe or respond to the location for parking or noise complaints, be sure to log the activity,” the lawsuit stated.
Based on a report by neighbor Vivienne Porter to Brennan, and with direction from the mayor, police ticketed a truck parked on Grand’s property March 25, 2021. And on May 7, 2021, two police officers approached a person who parked near Grand’s house and asked him, “Are you here for the shul?” according to the lawsuit.
Grand wrote a “scathing” letter to Brennan and copied city council that same day, the lawsuit said.
“The arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory treatment is ongoing and continues to this very day,” the lawsuit said.