After a recent ruling in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Jewish Community Action and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association are among the local faith organizations that signed onto an amicus brief to for the entire panel of the court’s judges to rehear the case.
The case, Heights Apartments v. Walz, stems from Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order that suspended evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heights challenged the constitutionality of the executive order. The district court dismissed their suit and the Heights’ owners appealed to the Eighth Circuit. Their success before the three-judge panel that heard the case means the lawsuit against the governor and the state of Minnesota can go forward.
“It wasn’t a blanket moratorium [on evictions],” said Erica Holzer, the Maslon attorney who is the primary author of the amicus brief, which was filed to the Eighth Circuit on May 10. “Essentially, it was the government’s attempt to balance the interests of renters who were facing unemployment, underemployment, and just COVID in general when there was no vaccine and cases were running rampant. The intention of the executive order was to stop the spread of COVID and it was effective in doing so.”
According to a Census Bureau American Housing Survey, 32 percent of renters, if evicted, would move in with family and friends. The brief cited a report that showed “household overcrowding is a leading predictor of both COVID-19 transmission and mortality.”
“States that chose to lift their eviction moratoria during 2020 experienced a collective estimated 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 additional deaths,” the brief said, citing a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. “One study showed that ten weeks after lifting eviction moratoria, the incidence of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 mortality increased 1.6 times compared to states that kept moratoria in place, and increased 2.1 times sixteen weeks after the moratoria was lifted. These statistics further establish that Minnesota’s narrowly tailored and temporary eviction moratorium was essential in saving lives and lowering transmission rates.”
Holzer said the case going forward will hamstring the government in future emergencies and pandemics.
“The government has to balance the rights of property owners against the health and safety of citizens; the executive order was the government’s attempt to do that, and we’re going to need governments to be making those decisions, without fear of being sued for money damages,” Holzer said.
The attorney general’s office filed its appeal against the decision after the court’s decision came down on April 5.
Jewish values in play
In the meetings prior to writing the brief, both Rabbi Debra Rappaport of the MRA and Dave Snyder, the organizing director at JCA, stressed the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, that preservation of a life trumps all else.
“Our faith doesn’t take it lightly to break laws or contracts,” Snyder said. “It felt right to be a part of this challenge.”
Housing justice has long been a central issue of JCA.
“Our members have gone door-to-door and talked with homeowners in foreclosure and tenants facing eviction,” he said. “We saw the eviction moratorium as a really important tool and intervention that helps stabilize thousands of families.”
Rappaport said that the MRA signed on after someone from the governor’s office contacted her. JCA and Isaiah also got involved at that point, and Isaiah then brought in the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and the Minnesota Council of Churches.
“It was kind of a no-brainer for all of the organizations to speak out on behalf of people who are threatened on food issues, on health and well-being issues, school, children,” Rappaport said. “Losing a home is devastating at any time, and especially when there’s a pandemic.”
Holzer said that the idea of saving lives isn’t just a Jewish value.
“It’s a principle across religions, including, [belief systems] that are not even deity based,” she said. “Because this was a brief to a government, and especially a conservative court, we were trying to balance not being too religious, but also carrying through these universal themes. It doesn’t read like a religious text, but certainly, it’s rooted in universal principles about saving lives.”