Hollywood -- Justice Department lawyers are questioning past and current Hollywood employees, reviewing videotapes of commission meetings and examining building code records to determine whether the city discriminated against an Orthodox Jewish sect.
Federal investigators plan to meet with top city officials and employees on March 24 to discuss the city commission's decision to stop the Chabad Lubavitch from worshiping in a residential neighborhood. They are focusing on whether the city treated the Chabad differently from other religious groups operating in single-family neighborhoods, particularly Rosa Lopez, who has turned her home into a shrine to the Virgin Mary without any interference from the city.
The sides have been fighting since 2000, when the sect turned two private homes on 46th Street into a single house of worship. The city said the conversion violated zoning laws, and neighbors complained worshipers are noisy, leave garbage in the area and create a nuisance.
On Oct. 17 the city ordered the Chabad to stop all services. Three days later, the Justice Department's civil rights division began investigating the case.
City attorney Dan Abbott already has given four boxes of records and tapes to the Justice Department, including a list of all zoning violations issued over the past several years, records show.
The Chabad contends that City Commissioner Sal Oliveri harassed them by ordering the city's code enforcement office to write hundreds of unmerited violations. Oliveri has been their harshest critic and led the city's charge to force them out.
The city already has spent about $40,000 in legal fees on the case.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the Chabad said several large law firms are preparing to file a "significant'' lawsuit against the city.
"We already have a draft and the discussions are very far along. We're just allowing the Justice Department to do its work or it would probably already be filed,'' said Franklin Zemel of Broad and Cassell.
In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, designed to give religious groups power to fight local zoning ordinances. While cities can regulate locations for houses of worship, the restrictions must be limited and applied equally to all religions.
Under RLUIPA, the federal government can sue the city if it finds discrimination.
"If we do get sued under some kind of equal protection provision, the city would have a number of very solid defenses,'' Abbott said. One videotape under federal review is from a Sept. 12, 2001, meeting in which the commission gave the Chabad a temporary extension and raised questions of preferential treatment for Lopez, who says she receives monthly visits and messages from the Virgin Mary.
Lopez has been operating for 10 years without a permit, once drawing thousands to her 1301 N. 66th Ave. home, where she still greets about 100 worshipers on the 13th of every month.
On the videotape, Oliveri said Lopez should be exempt from zoning because her services are "a miracle'' to true believers and the venue can not be changed since the Virgin Mary visits that particular home.
"If you people know anything about the Catholic religion, that's called a vision,'' Oliveri said at a packed meeting. "To Christians and Catholics, that's considered a miracle. That's not establishing a house of worship. That is a miracle.''
He later acknowledged that Lopez's services, which once grew so large that she put up portable toilets and needed police officers to direct traffic, had created a "disturbance.''
"The spiritual benefit that may be achieved by the people going there once a month far outweighs any inconvenience,'' Oliveri said at the meeting, drawing jeers from Chabad supporters and Mayor Mara Giulianti.
Giulianti pounced on what she called unequal treatment, and said it could cause problems for the city in the future.