Virginia Beach says rural home is no place for Buddhist center

By RICHARD QUINN, The Virginian-Pilot, September 4, 2007

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (USA) -- Is it a home? Or a house of worship? A four-acre ranch near the corner of Princess Anne and West Neck roads is both, and the ambiguity has created a face-off between religion and regulation in the rural fields of Pungo.

The issue started last year when a master Buddhist monk moved into the four-bedroom, $950,000 house. Two younger monks live with him and others pass through the house.

Meditative services were held there, then holiday celebrations. Cars pulled up often. Portable bathrooms were set up one weekend. One day, a tour bus showed up. Neighbors complained and, in January, master monk Thanh Cong Doan asked the city to allow the Buddhist Education Center of America Inc. to operate out of his home.

And so, at last week's City Council meeting, church met state.

"What it really comes down to... is does this council have the right to say nobody can come to visit people's homes?" Councilman Bob Dyer asked at the meeting. "Do we have the right?"

The answer was: yes, kind of.

Council acquiesced to services continuing at the home for 12 months. But it decided a religious use inside a single-family house in Pungo, the gateway to the city's rural neighborhoods, was inappropriate and urged Doan to find a new place to hold services.

Several council members said they were uncomfortable with Doan's original request to build a 6,000-square-foot pagoda on the front lawn. That idea was dropped when neighbors complained.

"As long as they're living there and doing typical residential things, that's absolutely acceptable," said Councilwoman Barbara Henley, who represents the rural Princess Anne district. " It's the organized services there that have triggered the need for the use permit."

The council approved the permit, temporarily, but the monks don't plan to move anytime soon.

They relocated last year, from Kempsville to Pungo. They now plan to spend the next year convincing residents and council members that they can be a good neighbor.

Through translator Abbie Tang, a producer at WAVY-TV, monks Chuc Thanh and Chuc Hoi said they will use the year to prove their services are quiet, meditative sessions.

Under the rules of their permit, they may hold services three hours on Sundays and three holidays a year. Crowd sizes are limited to 20 people on Sundays and 50 for holidays.

"The year is fine," Tang translated for the monks. "Within that year, at least they have the opportunity to change some minds. This is their work."

It won't be easy.

More than 100 neighbors signed a petition opposing the permit to pray. A half-dozen or so spoke out at council and Planning Commission hearings.

Elected officials struggled to balance freedom of religion against neighbors' rights to maintain a rural lifestyle. Both were viewed through the lens of the city's comprehensive planning document, which calls for Pungo and all lands south to remain an agricultural and residential district.

"We want it to be rural residential," said Dan Franken, a retired Navy captain and Doan's next-door neighbor.

"The fact that everyone is glomming onto religion is a red herring. It's a specious issue."

Not to Samantha Niezgoda, who also uses the Buddhist name Chuc Thanh Tam. Niezgoda thinks Doan may have been denied a full permit because his religion is not a more common, Christian, sect.

"Maybe that's the difference here," Niezgoda said, adding that more people gather for barbecues and Super Bowl parties than do for Doan's services.

Tariq Louka, an attorney for the monks, said he's spoken to a woman at the U.S. Department of Justice about the case. The official Louka talked to did not return phone calls last week from The Virginian-Pilot.

"It goes against what you're taught in fifth grade," Louka said while sipping tea with the monks.

"You have the freedom of religion, the freedom to assemble."

Louka said he will meet with Doan this week to decide what to do next. He said the monks could appeal the decision now or at the permit's expiration, arguing that it violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The 2000 law was crafted to protect religious freedom in the arenas of prison and land use, according to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Some thought the law could be a panacea for cases pitting religion against bureaucracy, said Robert O'Neil, director of The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville.

But federal courts are divided on the law's application. The U.S. appeals court that covers Virginia cases hasn't weighed in with a decision on whether a city may require a use permit for a religious purpose, said Bill Macali, deputy city attorney.

"I always tell my church and state class fairly early," O'Neil said, "there is one sector in which you will all be surprised to learn how unsympathetic the jurisprudence is. And that's land use."

Virginia Beach City Council members had a closed-door briefing about the law before they voted on the monk's application.

In a later interview, Macali said the city is within its legal rights to require, and then deny, a use permit for a religious facility.

"Having people over to your house informally to talk about a common subject is one thing," he said.

"Having services, actual religious services, in your home ... would constitute a religious use, whether it's a church, synagogue or something like that. It's a fine line."