Update: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on July 30.
A bill to enshrine the right of Californians to hang mezuzahs on their doorframes is moving through the state Legislature and is on its way to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
SB 652 bars landlords and condo associations from prohibiting “the display of religious items” of a certain size on doors and doorframes. Known to some as the “mezuzah bill” — though it also has the support of secular organizations, as well as Catholic and Hindu groups — it is sailing through the statehouse in Sacramento, where it passed the Assembly 72-0 on July 8 after being approved by the Senate on May 6.
The bill was introduced Feb. 22 by all seven state senators on the 16-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus, including Democrats Steve Glazer of Contra Costa County, Scott Wiener of San Francisco and chairman Ben Allen of Los Angeles.
The bill has the strong backing of JPAC (the Jewish Public Affairs Committee) and the Anti-Defamation League, which last month sent a letter of support to the chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, Rep. Mark Stone.
“For millennia, Jews have posted mezuzahs on the entry doorframes of their homes in fulfillment of a religious obligation rooted in the Torah,” states the correspondence, signed by the ADL’s S.F.-based state legislative director, Nancy Appel. “Posting a mezuzah is not a decorative choice for Jews,” Appel wrote, “or indeed a choice of any kind.”
Five other states — Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island and Texas — already have similar laws in place, the ADL said.
Over the years, the ADL’s offices in California have received a number of complaints from Jewish renters and condo owners who were told to remove their mezuzahs because of a building or apartment complex policy, including a handful in the Bay Area, the organization said. While usually resolved after a back-and-forth with building management, Appel, a 15-year ADL veteran, said the complaints from Jewish renters are some of the most “emotional” that she gets.
“We have usually heard from individuals who have never had to face this dilemma before,” she said. “Jews of differing levels of observance still feel it is a basic expression of their Jewish faith and identity.”
Posting a mezuzah is not a decorative choice for Jews, or indeed a choice of any kind.
Meir Messingher Lang, a 33-year-old tech entrepreneur, said he was stunned when, soon after moving into an apartment with his wife in Mountain View, was told by a property manager that their mezuzah violated the apartment complex’s policy on exterior door decorations.
Lang, a native Venezuelan with an aeronautics degree from Stanford University, said the property manager told him, “That’s a very nice ornament, but it has to come down.”
He was told “nothing could be on the door” at the brand-new, upscale apartment complex, which was still under construction even as he and wife were moving in.
He felt “lost” as to what to do, so he reached out to the ADL, and Appel helped him craft an email to his landlord. An email response was never received, so Lang and his wife kept their mezuzah affixed.
“They just disappeared,” Lang said. “They didn’t follow up.”
Not everyone is so lucky. Allen, who represents Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Torrance and other Southern California beach communities, said he and his Jewish caucus colleagues heard from a man whose homeowner association in San Diego insisted he remove his mezuzah from a condominium he had purchased. Rather than deal with the expense of a protracted legal fight, the man complied.
“It left him feeling very badly — in tears,” Allen told J.
“It’s something I found to be pretty outrageous,” Allen said. “I don’t have to explain to you that a mezuzah is an important expression of our faith. We are obligated as Jews to put a mezuzah on our door. It’s part of the v’ahavta,” the first full paragraph of the Shema section of Jewish prayer services.
The bill’s diverse backers include the National Association of Social Workers, the Jewish-based social justice agency Bend the Arc, the California Catholic Conference and the Hindu American Foundation. Appel said someone from the latter organization told her earlier this year that Hindus also traditionally place religious ornaments on their doors.
The bill protects the hanging of religious items smaller than 36-by-12 square inches, with exceptions for objects that “hinder the opening or closing of any entry door,” that violate any “federal state or local law” or that “threaten public health or safety.”
Allen said he doesn’t think prohibitions on hanging mezuzahs, set by landlords and property managers, are born out of anti-Semitic views. But they do show “incredible insensitivity,” he said.
“Part of living in a diverse, multicultural society,” he added, “is having awareness, and sensitivity, to other people’s beliefs.”