Buddhists pay $50 fines for worshipping in house

By John Tunison, The Grand Rapids Press, November 29, 2006

HOLLAND, Michigan (USA) -- As self-described "peaceful people," leaders of an Olive Township Buddhist Temple were in no mood to fight claims they violated township rules by worshipping in a house.

The seven men pleaded guilty to a township ordinance violation Tuesday in Holland District Court and were sentenced to $50 fines.

"We are happy with this," said Chris Liravongsa, a spokesman for the group and an official with the Wat Siriphanyo Aram-Lao Temple on Port Sheldon Road near 124th Avenue.

"We are a peaceful people. We know we violated the ordinance. We don't want to fight," he said.

Their legal troubles may be resolved, but uncertainty remains about where the small group of worshippers will meet for the nine major gatherings integral to the Buddhist faith. About 20 families are part of the temple.

Liravongsa did not know Tuesday whether the Aram Temple would sell the house bought two years ago or try to worship at a different location. In the past, worshippers scheduled gatherings at a West Ottawa middle school, but not many people attended because they were uncomfortable being away from the home's shrines.

Olive Township filed the misdemeanor ordinance violations against temple leaders earlier this fall because the ranch-style home and an adjacent pole barn were being used for assembly without township approval.

The township also complained worshippers were parking as many as 30 cars at a time on the property, a parcel with neighbors on both sides.

Zoning officials said the Aram Temple must abide by a site plan permit issued in 2005 to build a new 4,000-square-foot building and parking lot and not worship out of a home that may not be safe from fire hazards for large assemblies.

Temple members say they have not raised the funds needed for construction.

Holland District Judge Brad Knoll told temple leaders free expression of religion is an important right.

"It's not the intent of the court to interfere with your religious practice, but the balance here is you must obey the township zoning ordinance. Unless the provisions of that ordinance are successfully challenged, you must obey them," he said.