Judge Resolves Buddhist Temple Dispute

By John Lyon, Times Record, May 9, 2006

Fort Smith, Arkansas (USA) -- A dispute that has divided members of a Buddhist temple in Fort Smith for nearly a year apparently was resolved Monday by a judge’s order.

At a bench trial in Sebastian County Circuit Court, Judge James Marschewski heard arguments and testimony in a civil suit concerning the manner in which Wat Buddha Samakitham is governed. The suit was filed in June by a group of temple members who claimed the temple’s abbot, Phra Sagob Parisanto, and other temple members were trying to take control of the temple away from the duly elected board of directors, in violation of bylaws that had been in effect since 1989, when the temple was incorporated.

Parisanto and 11 other people responded to the suit with a cross complaint alleging that it was the plaintiffs who were violating the temple’s bylaws. They claimed that the 1989 bylaws had been superseded by a set of bylaws passed in 1992, and that the plaintiffs were illegally attempting to seize control of the temple from the abbot and the true board of directors.

Marschewski ruled Monday that the 1989 bylaws are the only valid bylaws. He ordered that a new election be held within 60 days to select a board of directors and officers in accordance with those bylaws.

When new directors and officers have been elected, control of the temple’s finances will go to them, Marschewski ordered.

First National Bank has been the custodian of the temple’s finances since August, when Marschewski ruled that a neutral party should handle the temple’s money while the suit was pending.

Paul Gean, attorney for the defendants, argued at Monday’s trial that the 1992 bylaws were properly approved and signed. He accused the plaintiffs of attempting “a hostile takeover” of the temple.

Some of the people whose names appeared on the 1992 bylaws testified that they did not sign the document. Some said through interpreters that they could not have read the document because it was in English, and that they were never told what the document contained.

Brian Meadors, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the 1992 bylaws also were invalid because they gave the abbot power to appoint directors, creating what was essentially “a dictatorship.” The state law under which the temple was incorporated requires that a board of directors be elected by the people, he said.

Meadors said after the trial that his clients were pleased with the judge’s ruling.

Gean said he did not anticipate an appeal. Just minutes after the ruling was handed down, people on both sides of the case were already talking to each other about holding an election, he said.

Asked if he thought temple members would be able to put the dispute behind them completely, Gean said, “I think that’s a good possibility.”