September 28, 2008
Monks File Suit Against City to Worship at Home
By DEIRDRE FERNANDES
By Deirdre FernandesThe Virginian-Pilot
Buddhist monks and their followers have filed a federal lawsuit in the hopes of forcing the city to let them resume worshipping at their home in rural Pungo.
The suit, filed Thursday, complains that the city of Virginia Beach violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the First Amendment's protections on religious freedom, when it denied a use permit to the Buddhist Education Center of America Inc.
"In order to protect the farmland of Virginia Beach, they killed the Constitution," John Stepanovich, an attorney representing the center, said during a news conference Friday.
The City Council o n Aug. 26 voted to deny the monks' request for a two-year extension to hold Sunday services at their house on West Neck Road.
Some neighbors had complained that the services drew too much traffic and was inappropriate for a primarily residential and farming community.
Deputy City Attorney Bill Macali said he hasn't seen the suit but maintained that the council made its decision based on land-use issues, not religion.
"The City Council did not take into account that this was a Buddhist temple," Macali said.
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. The law also requires that religious and non religious institutions be treated the same.
Stepanovich said the council failed to provide a compelling reason to deny the permit.
Christopher Truong, a member of the Buddhist Center and a plaintiff in the suit, said he was "very sad" that the services have been stopped. "I feel like justice has to look into our case," he said.
The federal suit contains several errors, including confusing the Planning Commission recommendation and City Council decision.
Stepanovich said those will be corrected but the central issue of the case is still the council's permit denial.
Deirdre Fernandes, (757) 222-5121, [email protected]
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.
Originally published by BY DEIRDRE FERNANDES.
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