LAS VEGAS--Rabbi Moshe Omer's faith restricts him from doing any work on Saturday, the Jewish holy day of Sabbath. As a member of the strict Orthodox sect of Judaism, he is not allowed to perform manual labor, talk on the phone or even put his signature on a piece of paper from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.

So when a city of Las Vegas code enforcement officer showed up during a prayer meeting Omer was leading in his home Saturday morning and asked him to sign a citation for violating zoning laws, he refused.

While a dozen of Omer's congregants watched, the rabbi told the city official and three Las Vegas police officers that he could sign the ticket--issued for conducting religious worship in a home and creating a public nuisance--when Sabbath expired later that evening or on Monday morning. Omer even offered to have one of his non-Jewish congregants sign the citation as an alternative.

When authorities told him that was impossible, Omer again refused to sign.

He was handcuffed, arrested and--though he explained his religion did not permit him to ride in a vehicle on Saturdays--transported to the city jail via police car.

"I was in shock. It was horrifying. I couldn't believe something like this could happen in this city," said Omer, a soft-spoken Israeli whose English name is Michael Essence. He said the way he was treated put images of Nazis and the Holocaust in his mind: "My students tell me if this happened to Jesse Jackson, there would be riots."

After a sympathetic desk sergeant called a judge to Las Vegas jail to sign the citation for him, Omer was released and offered a ride home. Again, because of his religion, he declined the offer and waited at a congregant's downtown office for several hours before being driven home after sunset.

Having to explain why an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who teaches Kabbalah--the study of Jewish mysticism--was carted off to jail for practicing his beliefs has proved an embarrassment for the city.

Mayor Oscar Goodman spent his break between morning and afternoon City Council sessions Wednesday at a news conference Omer called at the Kabbalah Centre.

"We pride ourselves on treating all our citizens with human dignity," Goodman said while standing in front of about 50 folding chairs, where students study each week. "I apologize for what I believe was caused by ignorance and a mistake in judgment."

What at first might sound like a simple case of religious insensitivity is actually just the latest episode in a series of standoffs between the city's code enforcement office and the Kabbalah Centre, a four-bedroom home that doubles as Omer's place of worship. It is located at 2161 S. Lisa Lane, near Sahara Avenue and Durango Drive, an area zoned only for residential use.

Attorneys for the Kabbalah Centre and the city of Las Vegas are engaged in a battle where First Amendment-guaranteed religious freedom is pitted against city zoning laws that prohibit residences from being used as places of worship.

According to city of Las Vegas spokesman Erik Pappa, homeowners near the Kabbalah Centre began filing complaints with the city's code enforcement office in March, objecting to the 25 to 30 cars being parked on neighborhood streets during Sabbath services each week.

In April, the city's Planning Commission denied Omer's request for a zoning variance, but the Kabbalah Centre continued holding Saturday services and smaller study classes daily.

"I pay my taxes. I paid for my house, and I pay my bills. They're the ones who don't have a special-use permit to worship," said Anthony Bock, the only neighbor that shares a cul-de-sac with the Kabbalah Centre. Bock says congregants' cars constantly are parked on his driveway and property.

Pappa said that since Bock and others complained, code enforcement officers have made nine trips to the Kabbalah Centre in the past three months to cite Omer for his illegal use of the residence.

But the counsel for Omer insists that the city's code is the source of the problem.

"The city ordinance needs to be conformed to the First Amendment," said Paul Larsen, the local attorney for the Kabbalah Centre, one of 39 centers across the world operated by the Los Angeles-based organization of the same name.

He says several city officials have conceded that the rabbi's arrest is the only time a Las Vegan has been taken to jail over a zoning violation. "Whether it's a Bible study group, a family night for a Mormon family or a Kabbalah group, religious freedom is guaranteed."

According to an internal code enforcement report requested by the Review-Journal, city officers cited a "church employee" on May 2 for operating a house of worship in a residential zone. The report also states that on June 2, a man identified as "Mosha" shut the door in city code officers' faces as they tried to issue a ticket. It says the man then refused to re-open the door, even after Las Vegas police were called to the house and asked him to open it.

Rabbi Shaul Youdkevitch, a Kabbalah Centre representative based in Los Angeles, said services will continue at the house until the group can find another location.

"We'll come to some resolution with the city on this, whether it's through negotiations or through litigation," said Larsen, the Las Vegas Kabbalah Centre attorney.

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