Steiners back at GWU — for now

Shemtov Steiner
Rabbi Yehuda Steiner, left, and Rabbi Levi Shemtov

Rabbi Yehuda Steiner and his wife, Rivky, remained on George Washington University’s campus this week, despite a Dec. 15 court order from the D.C. Superior Court barring the couple from continuing their work as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries on campus or even operating within a mile of it.

As first reported in WJW, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the leading Chabad rabbi in D.C., hired the couple in 2008 to perform Jewish outreach to college students at GWU but moved to fire them after he determined that Steiner withheld more than $1,000 in contributions to the organization and failed to maintain records, as required under their employment contract.

A panel of three religious arbitrators verified the infractions before Shemtov asked the D.C. Superior Court to remove the Steiners from GWU’s campus. Two days after Judge Neal Kravitz granted that request, on Dec. 17, the Steiners appealed his ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals. On Tuesday morning, a three judge appellate panel heard oral arguments on the issue of whether the injunction was proper. A decision has not been announced and could take weeks, even months.

In the meantime, the appellate court has temporarily stayed the lower court’s injunction, pending its decision, allowing the Steiners to facilitate Chabad-Lubavitch worship on campus again. With the ban against them effectively on hold, the Steiners hosted nearly 100 students for a Shabbat dinner on Jan. 16 at their three-bedroom apartment near campus.

The Steiners’ attorney, Chauncey Bratt of the D.C. firm White & Case, said that Jewish GWU students have the right under the First Amendment to “choose the religious leader on campus many of them would prefer.” Furthermore, he said, “it’s in the public’s interest for students to be able to practice their Judaism, choose the religious leader they prefer and for Steiner to continue his teachings” with them.

Bratt said his client is “cautiously optimistic” that he will prevail, because the law provides “many protections to the public for the exercise of their religion.”

Shemtov, reached by phone late Tuesday, disagreed.

“As one who celebrates the religious liberties our great nation affords, I would be loath to limit another’s rights in that regard. At the same time, to allow those rights to be exercised in a way which violates the law or interferes with the rights of another is something we all must be very wary of,” said Shemtov.

“We were clearly afforded by Rabbi Steiner the right to operate without inter ference by him if he was terminated or quit. He must honor that commitment” now that he’s no longer employed.

Added Shemtov: “I hope that Rabbi Steiner will conclude operations peacefully, as he agreed to under the terms of his contract.”

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  1. >>The Steiners’ attorney, Chauncey Bratt of the D.C. firm White & Case, said that Jewish GWU students have the right under the First Amendment to “choose the religious leader on campus many of them would prefer.”

    I really doubt an attorney said that. Please ask the author of this story to check his quotes or to read the law he references: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

  2. Jake: Attorney Bratt’s quotation is accurate, and the author of this story is also a licensed attorney. Bratt’s argument to the D.C. Court of Appeals was that if the appellate court upholds the lower court’s granting of a preliminary injunction in this case, effectively barring Steiner from leading religious life at GWU, the court itself will have conferred the necessary state action to implicate the First Amendment. SHELLEY V. KRAEMER , 334 U.S. 1 (1948).


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