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Hindu Temple Society of North America, et al. v. New York Supreme Court, et al.

The Becket Fund filed a federal lawsuit (PDF format, 167K) on August 4, 2004, on behalf of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. The suit argues that local courts are aiding the hostile takeover of the Temple in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

It is ironic that the Hindu Temple Society, based in Flushing, Queens, New York, is facing government intervention in its autonomy. The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is the predecessor to the First Amendment and one of the oldest expressions of religious freedom in the world. It reproved the Dutch colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant for his attempts to ban Quakers, a reviled religious minority at the time. Bowne Street, on which the Temple stands, is named after John Bowne, whom Governor Stuyvesant banished from the colony for allowing Quakers to hold religious services in his home. (You can read more of the history of the remonstrance here.)

Supreme Court Judge Joseph G. Golia and his appointed referee, Long Island lawyer Anthony J. Piacentini, are forcibly restructuring the governance of the Temple in response to the efforts of six dissidents who wish to control the Temple, some of whom rarely, if ever, worship there.

The federal lawsuit states that Judge Golia and Referee Piacentini have used their judicial offices to take control of the Temple, to prohibit it from engaging in certain forms of religious exercise and speech, and to impose a voting membership requirement, including the definition of who is a Hindu--all of which violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. If these orders are allowed to stand, they will have the effect of transferring complete control of the Temple-even who decides which priests will be hired and what gods will be worshipped-to new individuals. The complaint states that the court has "absolutely refused to provide any-much less a 'full and fair'-opportunity to litigate Plaintiffs' constitutional defenses to such actions."

The complaint, filed in Brooklyn at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, asks the federal court to issue an injunction barring the local court from further activity that would jeopardize the rights of the Temple and its devotees. If successful, the federal suit would prevent the State from enforcing an unprecedented intrusion into the religious affairs of a faith community.

The Becket Fund also filed a memorandum (PDF format, 443K) in support of a motion for a preliminary injunction with the court "restraining Defendants from taking further action to violate the constitutionally protected autonomy of the Hindu Temple Society through an unconstitutional application of the New York Religious Corporations Law in the state judicial process." The brief argues, "This extraordinary relief is warranted. The actions taken against the Plaintiffs are extreme. The potential destruction of the Temple’s religious polity is absolute. The bias of the parties involved is serious."

The August 4 New York Times featured an article about the suit, quoting Becket Fund Director of Litigation Roman Storzer. The New York Sun previously ran an editorial (PDF format, 536K) about The Becket Fund's work for the Temple.

On October 13, 2004, Justice Joseph Golia of the Supreme Court of New York granted a temporary stay to the Hindu Temple Society and its trustees and devotees, temporarily stopping an election process that threatens to divide the community of the nation’s oldest Hindu Temple. Robert Greene, an attorney for the Becket Fund, demonstrated to the Court that the planned election violated the Temple’s First Amendment rights and flies in the face of state statutes. Greene also presented a “Petition to Save Our Temple” with over 2,000 signatures to the Court. The stay will remain in place until Justice Golia rules on the Becket Fund’s motion for an interim stay pending appeal, which is currently before the Supreme Court.

On September 2, 2004, ten organizations--representing various religious denominations--submitted an amicus (friend of the court) letter (PDF format, 66K) in support of The Becket Fund's motion for a preliminary injunction against the defendants of the federal suit.

The Hindu American Foundation presented the letter on behalf of AGNI Corporation, the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, the Hindu Human Rights Group, the Hindu International Council Against Defamation, Hindu University of America, Ile Obatala Oya, Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation, Navya Shastra, and the Queens Federation of Churches. The Hindu American Foundation is a human rights organization that promotes the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance, and pluralism.

"In this letter supporting the Hindu Temple’s request for injunctive relief, we seek to highlight two issues of grave concern to the religious liberty of not only Hindu Americans, but all Americans," the letter states. "The first issue implicates the right to free exercise as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If the order of the Supreme Court of the State of New York (the “Supreme Court”) is not overturned, an unprecedented state-sponsored intrusion into the religious autonomy of the Hindu Temple as well as the religious practice of the Hindu community will be allowed in patent violation of the U.S. Constitution."

The amicus letter discusses how the state court system has burdened the Hindu Temple Society's religious practice: "The order mandating a state-sponsored referee to determine the method by which the Hindu Temple structures and governs itself; who qualifies as a member, an inquiry which potentially includes determining who qualifies as a 'Hindu; and imposing rule by a majority of state-approved members, absent any legal basis, appears punitive and represents a potentially hostile interference into the sanctity of the Hindu Temple. It also clearly interferes with the Hindu Temple’s ability to function, let alone exercise its religion, as the Board of Trustees, which as an entity has governed the Hindu Temple for the past thirty years, is no longer able conduct its business including appointing, hiring and dismissing priests; exercising authority over the design and expansion of the temple grounds according to Hindu religious principles; managing the scheduling of religious services at the temple; deciding which divinities will be honored as well as the forms of devotion that will occur at the temple; controlling the finances of the temple; and all other aspects of religious and temporal activities associated with the temple."

The Hindu American Foundation also explains that the state court system's rulings ignore how Hinduism is traditionally practiced. "[B]ecause Hindu temples, both in India and abroad, have not traditionally had 'memberships,' several communities in the U.S. govern their temples similarly to those in India and abroad, entrusting management of temple affairs to a Board of Trustees," the letter states. "However, regardless of the construct of self-governance used by any temple in the United States, this is a function that must be left strictly in the control of adherents of the particular faith and not in the hands of the government."

The letter goes on to note, "The second issue of concern invokes the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Clearly in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to equal protection under the law, the New York Religious Corporations Law (“RCL”) distinguishes between different faiths, providing legal benefits and custom-tailored laws to majority religious organizations such as, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, while minority religious organizations, such as Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist, are pigeon-holed into two ambiguous subsections referred to as 'Free Churches' and 'Other Denominations' where laws are not individualized to best fit their needs and in some cases, may impose legal disadvantages."

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 605, Washington, D.C. 20036
phone: 202.955.0095 · fax: 202.955.0090