Town vs. Buddhists

By LYNNE TUOHY, Hartford Courant, March 7, 2007

Temple Dispute In State's High Court
Hartford, CT (USA)
-- Many members of the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut fled the "killing fields" of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime three decades ago. Their crucible now is a pitched legal battle over whether they can build a temple on 10 acres they own in Newtown.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether Newtown's denial of a special permit for the temple rises to a violation of state and federal laws that bar political entities from putting undue burdens on the exercise of religious freedom.

With elders dying off, the Cambodian Buddhists say the risk is grave that their religion and culture will die as well. Theirs would be the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in Connecticut.

"Time is running out. The older generation is dying," said Pinith Mar, who fled a Cambodian refugee camp at age 13 and is now an engineer with the state Department of Transportation. Because the Khmer Rouge systematically killed monks and the educated, Cambodian Buddhism and the culture it represents dwell in those who escaped annihilation.

"If they are gone, I have nowhere to go," Mar said of the elders who can teach him and his 8-year-old twin sons the rites and traditions of his religion.

Newtown officials and neighbors on Boggs Hill Road oppose use of the rural property for a temple that could attract up to 450 people on the handful of days when religious festivals are held.

The Newtown Planning and Zoning Commission, in its unanimous decision in February 2003 denying the special permit application, stated in part: "Although the commission would welcome the Buddhist religion into the community, the planned and expected future level of activity proposed ... is too intense."

Attorney Robert Fuller, representing the commission, and attorney Thomas Beecher, who represents neighbors opposed to the temple, both argued that the decision does not hinder or burden the exercise of religion, but states only that the location is not appropriate for a temple.

The commission initially gave six reasons for its denial of the permit application, including that the Asian architecture would have a negative impact on property values and was not in harmony with the area's traditional New England architecture. Superior Court Judge Deborah Kochiss Frankel ruled that five of the commission's reasons were unsubstantiated, but upheld the decision based on the commission's concern that the society had not yet obtained well and septic permits.

Fuller also denigrated what he termed the "melodramatic" assertions of the Cambodian Buddhists that it was imperative that they build their temple as soon as possible. He noted that they let three years lapse between buying the property in 1999 and applying for the special permit in 2002.

Attorney Michael Zizka, who represents the Cambodian Buddhist Society, succinctly explained that delay to the justices: "This is not a society that is flush with money."

He later said outside the court that the society does not want to invest in a well and septic system if it doesn't have a building permit. He said it was the jurisdiction of the local and state departments of health, and not the planning and zoning commission, to oversee septic and drinking water concerns.

The case will require the justices to analyze both the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the state's Religious Freedom Act in the context of the proposed temple. Fuller argued that those laws don't mandate special treatment for religious groups; Zizka countered that they do. In his brief, Zizka cast the commission's denial as thinly veiled discrimination.

Justices Peter Zarella and Richard Palmer both commented that the state's Religious Freedom Act is "a significant overlay" on established law. They and Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. asked Fuller why the commission didn't approve the permit with the condition that well and septic permits be obtained before the start of construction.

"It's preferential treatment that someone else isn't going to get," Fuller replied. "The cases don't say that. They say they [the Buddhists] should be treated no better or no worse. They don't get an automatic free ride."

Beecher, in his brief, argued that the planned size of the temple grew from 6,000 square feet to 7,600 square feet before the first public hearing on the issue. The Newtown Bee newspaper on Tuesday featured a story about an 8,200-square-foot house on Boggs Hill Road that sold last month for a record price of $1.87 million.

Outside court, Mar, and Bruce P. Blair, Buddhist chaplain and director of Yale University's Indigo Blue center for Buddhist life, explained the importance of having a temple.

They said a monk is not a true monk unless he has a temple, just as temple is not a temple unless it is inhabited by a monk. The monks can leave the temple and its grounds, but cannot be away overnight.

"It ends up being a question of the integrity and legitimacy of the faith," Blair said.

"When we go to a temple, we go to pay respect for our loved ones who have passed away, and we believe the spirit of the loved one goes to the temple to see the family," Mar said. "The monk is a channel between the living and the dead."

Blair said the temple is in no way a social club. "It's a place wherein the faith can be handed from one generation to the next," he said. "To deny that liberty is to extinguish the very life of the community. It is to finish the work of Pol Pot. It is something that is so wrong."

The court is not expected to issue a ruling in the case for at least several months.