Beach oversteps on temple's treatment

The Virginian-Pilot, August 17, 2008

Virginia Beach, VA (USA) -- Government must tread lightly wherever it affects religious expression, and especially when an action would limit the freedom to worship.

If that's a given in America - and the Constitution assures us that it is - then Virginia Beach's treatment of a Buddhist temple near Pungo is worse than mere clumsiness. It steps near, if not over, the line of unconstitutional religious restriction.

Happily, such absolutes need not necessarily be at issue in the case of the Buddhist Education Center of America on West Neck Road. A group of monks lives there and holds weekly religious services and three celebrations a year.

The city's Planning Commission last week said that it had run out of patience with the temple, bowing to neighbors' objections and recommending that the monks and their temple move to a place where the city's zoning permits them.

Here's the problem: In this housing market, the monks - like homeowners everywhere - cannot sell their property for a price they want. The Planning Commission's decision, essentially, demands that they sell it anyway.

That's simply unfair.

Neighbors have complained about the traffic, and that the temple is incompatible with "the expectations of the residents," whatever that means. In any case, neither is anywhere near justification for forcing somebody to move out of a neighborhood, let alone for limiting the free exercise of religion.

The Planning Commission has made a bad decision, and a worse recommendation. The City Council should reject it immediately.

Otherwise, if the city forces the monks from their temple, it should and probably will face another fight, this time in court and on religious liberty grounds. That's a battle it should lose.