Monks sue Va. Beach over permit denial, Sep 28, 2008

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (USA) -- They teach morality, tolerance and love. But a small group of Buddhist monks say that is not what they have found in the city's leaders.

The monks have filed a federal lawsuit claiming Virginia Beach is violating their Constitutional right to religious freedom.

"I come from Vietnam," said Chuc Than, one of the monks. Some of the monks left communist Vietnam and settled on a four acre piece of property in the sprawling farmlands of Pungo.

They refurbished the dilapidated farm and last year the city gave them permission to hold small religious services on Sunday Mornings. The monks say usually only about 20 people attend those services and they are very quiet.

Last month City Council ordered them to halt those Sunday Services.

"I don't understand why. I hear America is the land for freedom," said Than, sitting next to two fellow monks in the offices of their Virginia Beach attorney.

John Stepanovich, who is representing the monks in the federal lawsuit against the city says, "The foundation of the suit is the foundation of this country. They claim they have a constitutional right to express their religion and worship in anyway they want to worship."

Opponents say the Sunday services draw too much traffic. The monks say, no more than any Sunday football gathering.

Local Buddhist followers say the city is picking and choosing how to apply their zoning laws depending on who they are dealing with.

On the other hand, William Macali, deputy city attorney for Virginia Beach, says he's confident the city will win the lawsuit.

"We do feel the city council was within it's authority to deny the extension of the conditional use permit and we feel confident we can relay those reasons to the court," said Macali.

The monks say they will move forward, peacefully in court to win back their religiuous freedom.

The also want the court to allow them to restart their Sunday services while this case goes through court.

About the law

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits localities from adopting zoning that "imposes a substantial burden" on people's ability to practice their religion unless there is a compelling governmental reason.