Newtown Dispute Continues Over Buddhist Society's Rights

By ELIZABETH HAMILTON |, July 19, 2008

Newtown, Connecticut (USA) -- When the Cambodian Buddhist Society lost its plea before the state Supreme Court six months ago to build a temple on a Newtown hilltop, both the residents who lived near the proposed temple and the Buddhists who wanted to build it believed their long battle was over.

But things haven't worked out the way anyone expected.

Instead of detente, the dispute between the two sides which began nearly a decade ago when the society began hosting large festivals on its property has continued to boil, with neighbors counting cars and taking pictures while society members complain about intolerance.

The most recent standoff took place last week before the Newtown Zoning Board of Appeals as the Buddhist society sought to have a cease-and-desist order issued by the town's zoning enforcement officer overturned. The order which was issued on April 16 after neighbors complained that there were at least 60 cars on the property three days earlier instructs the society to "cease all religious services and festivals permanently."

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Proposed Temple Proposed Temple Graphic

At issue, though, this time is what, exactly, constitutes a "religious service or festival" and whether or not the Supreme Court decision prohibits the society from holding any large gatherings that are deemed to be religious in nature on the site.

The neighbors are keeping track of all holidays celebrated by the Cambodian Buddhists and correlating them to increased use of the property. On March 22 and April 13, they say, they counted roughly 23 and 60 cars on the site, respectively.

The neighbors took photos of the cars and submitted them, with a written complaint, to Gary Frenette, Newtown's zoning enforcement officer.

Legal Gatherings?
Although the society doesn't deny that a group of people gathered at the property April 13, which was the Cambodian New Year holiday, its leaders insist they were engaging in neither a festival nor a religious service. Instead, they said, people were simply visiting the four Buddhist monks who live on the property.

"People go to the monks and offer them food and their respects," said Pinith Mar, a member of the society. "We rented a hall in New Britain for our celebration [of the Cambodian New Year] because we know we can't do that on the property."

Mar said he believes the society, which has about 450 members, is being targeted because of religious intolerance, but made clear that he does not speak for the group.

The society's attorney, Mike Zizka, said it doesn't matter why they were there. He appealed the cease-and-desist order on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because it prohibits society members from engaging in any religious observance on the property.

"Basically what they are saying is that the particular use is OK, unless it's religiously motivated," Zizka said Thursday. "I asked [Frenette] last night, 'What if somebody had a New Year's party and invited 50 to 60 people? Would you issue a cease-and-desist order?' And he said of course not. I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'Because it's not religiously motivated.'

"Well, how about a Christmas party then?"

Zizka's point that the town does not rush to issue cease-and-desist orders every time residents hold gatherings at their homes on significant religious holidays, such as Christmas or Passover exasperates Janis Opdahl, who lives next door to the monks.

Opdahl said there is a difference between a homeowner hosting an annual Christmas party and the more regular gatherings she says occur at the monks' property. She also took issue with the society's contention that people were simply "visiting" the monks, just as they would a friend or family member.

"I asked them the question, and I know it probably sounded a little sarcastic and I didn't mean it to sound that way, but I said, 'Do any of you have 400 relatives who might on any given day come to visit?'" Opdahl said, recounting what she said at the ZBA meeting Wednesday.

But does that make what the Cambodian Buddhists are doing now on their property illegal? Frenette, who has been the zoning enforcement officer in Newtown for 10 years, believes it does.

Frenette said zoning regulations require groups planning to hold religious services to obtain a permit from the planning and zoning commission. Since Frenette believes that the March and April activities reported by the neighbors were linked to Buddhist holidays, he believes the society needed a permit, which it did not have.

"These people are having religious activities on their property. They had one bite of the apple, so to speak, and this is just a way of going in through another door," Frenette said, referring to the society's appeal to the state Supreme Court. "It's unfortunate that this is happening."

Zizka, the lawyer representing the society, said the neighbors and Frenette are not accurately interpreting the Supreme Court's decision.

"They are misleading the commission as to what the Supreme Court did," Zizka said. "What the court said is that the town had adequate reason to say no to the temple. It did not say you can't have religious worship or religious services or have anything that smacks of religion on that site."

The state's highest court ruled unanimously last January that Newtown's planning and zoning commission had valid reasons for denying a special permit for construction of what would have been the state's first Cambodian Buddhist temple, despite the society's contention that the commission's denial was motivated by religious bigotry.

At issue, in addition to the town's concerns about septic usage and traffic on Boggs Hill Road, was the Asian design of the proposed 7,600-square-foot temple and meeting hall. The society wanted to build the temple on 10 acres it owns in the residential neighborhood.

The justices ruled that the town's denial was based on "substantial evidence" and did not trigger federal and state laws designed to safeguard the exercise of religious freedom. The court's 45-page ruling rested on a comprehensive analysis of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and a related state law.

Eyeing Bristol
Mar said the society is still searching for an alternative site to build its temple and that some members are ready to settle on something that is less than ideal because they feel time is running out for the elders to pass along the practices of Buddhism to the younger generation and ready themselves for death.

Mar, who escaped from a Cambodian refugee camp when he was 13, said all the adult members of the society were victims of the Khmer Rouge, the communist party that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s. Because Khmer leader Pol Pot and his followers executed monks, along with intellectuals and professionals, the culture and religion of Cambodian Buddhism exists solely in the memories of those who survived.

There is a practical issue at hand. Buddhism is made up of what are known as the Three Jewels: the Buddha; the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha; and the Sangha, which includes the monks, the temple and worship. If one of these things is missing, you can't truly practice Buddhism.

When the Cambodian Buddhists found the Newtown site, Mar said, they were elated because it contained the elements necessary for the creation of a temple a pond, enough elevation for the temple to look out toward the east, trees, space for a garden, and tranquillity.

"We're looking at a place in Bristol right now. It's not the ideal site, but I don't blame [the older members]," Mar said. "It's understandablethe elders want to get a place."

Opdahl, who said she feels sorry for the Cambodian Buddhist Society, denied that she and other neighbors are intolerant.

"Calling us bigots is hurtful," Opdahl said. "We just want it to be over so we can get on with our lives. We know what they suffered in Cambodia but we can't do anything about that. They have to move forward."