Tuesday, September 14, 2010
U.S. Sues Walnut Over Denial of Permit for Buddhist Center
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Justice Department sued the City of Walnut yesterday, claiming officials violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 by refusing to grant a permit for the construction of a Buddhist Center.
In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the government said the city has “treated, and continues to treat, the [Chung Tai] Zen Center on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution,” has discriminated and is discriminating against the center on the basis of religion, and has imposed and is imposing a substantial burden on the center’s exercise of religion.
RLUIPA, a federal statute enacted in response to a Supreme Court decision striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1988, limits the extent to which local entities that receive federal funds may impose land use restrictions on the use of property for religious purposes. Such restrictions must be non-discriminatory and must be no more intrusive than necessary to vindicate compelling governmental interests.
In its complaint, the Justice Department asked for declaration that the city has violated RLUIPA and an injunction barring the city from discriminating against the Zen center and other religious groups.
Federal officials said the city of Walnut denied the center’s application in January 2008, after a seven-year effort that included a significant scaling down of the original proposal in order to meet objections by the city planning staff. The city had not denied a conditional use permit for a religious facility since at least 1980, the complaint alleges.
The government also contends that one planning commissioner said the center should not be approved even if all of the changes proposed by the commission majority were accepted, and another “expressed concern that the Zen Center would seek to ‘recruit’ and influence students who attended a nearby middle school.”
The complaint additionally alleges that the city treated the Zen Center differently than other religious facilities, including approval of an August 2008 permit for a Catholic church that will be larger than the Buddhist center when completed.
The city also approved completion of a large civic center complex just two blocks from where the Zen center was proposed to be built, and demonstrated bias by claiming the building would be a “tourist attraction” and comparing it to larger Buddhist edifices elsewhere, the complaint says.
“Religious freedom is among our most cherished rights, and our nation’s laws prohibit cities and towns from discriminating based on religion when they make zoning decisions related to houses of worship,” Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a release. “No faith should be singled out for inferior treatment when it seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws.”
Walnut City Manager Robert Wishner, in what he described as a “preliminary response,” said the city has “fair and equitable development standards” and “contends that the applicant failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by voluntarily electing not to appeal the Planning Commission’s action to the City Council.”
“The judicial process will allow both sides to present their views, and a judge will decide what steps, if any, need to be taken by the City with regards to the Zen Center and other religious entities and institutions.”
The action, United States v. City of Walnut, CV-10-6774, was assigned to U.S. District Judge George H. Wu. Discovery motions will be heard by Magistrate Judge Fernando M. Olguin.
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