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May 22, 1999


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Hindu Temple Officials Wait For Their Day In Court

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Arthur J Pais

Mahesh Dixit is clearly tired of the controversy that has bogged down the plans for a $ 2 million project to build a cultural center adjacent to a temple in Berlin Borough, about an hour's drive from New York.

"We have been working on it for many years, and when we were able to start the construction work, the town changes its zoning laws," he says with a heavy sigh. The cultural center was to be built on a seven acre land near the Hindu temple housed since 1982 in a former Baptist church.

Dixit, an engineer with Simon & Webster in the nearby Cherry Hill town, is one of the pillars of the Indian Temple Associates Cultural Center that manages the temple. He has officiated as a priest at the temple since its inception.

The Center bought the land for $ 20,000 and has spent about $ 100,000 in engineering and traffic studies and sent notices -- as per the law -- to property owners within 200 feet of the site in November about the proposed cultural center.

Then the murmuring started, and many residents began a signature campaign against the proposed center, and about two months ago, the Borough Council changed its mind.

The Association filed discrimination suit immediately against the Borough. And Dixit and other officials including Ghanshyam Dave, the association's president, want to have their day in the court soonest.

"If I have to look at it philosophically, I would say that I would not want anything in a vacant lot near my house," Dixit says with a sigh. But he wonders what the true motive of the opponents is. Do they fear for their tranquility or are afraid of an alien culture?

Many neighbors say while it was alright to have the temple around them, the cultural center would draw far bigger number of people and disrupt the peace, even though it was going to be built in technically a non-resident area. Several of the residents, who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity, said they would have opposed the Center even if a Christian organization was behind it. Others said they had run away from bigger cities, hoping for quietude. "And suddenly in God's name our peace is being disturbed," said one middle aged resident.

Dixit is quick to point out that the residents have an exaggerated fear about the noise level and the influx of thousands of people every day of the week throughout the year.

"Our people just do not have time for such activities every day of their lives," he says.

Dixit says the Borough Council did know of the opposition, but expressed no concern initially to the proposal. However, it gave in to increasing pressure and changed the zoning law.

The lawsuit contends that following signs of opposition by the residents, the council passed an ordinance removing a single sentence from the zoning ordinance -- that sentence permitted multipurpose buildings in nonresidential areas.

"They told us first it was permitted, the zoning law allowed it," Jeff Baron, an attorney for the association says. "Then there was a sudden change. That strikes us as strange." He says some of the opponents were not discussing just the fears about the noise level. They were clearly talking about a religion, another culture growing amidst them, he adds.

"The cultural centers are indeed very important to any temple in America," Dixit says. "Temples abroad function entirely different than the ones in India.

"In India, we go to a temple, pray and then go home. But abroad, specially in smaller cities and big towns, temples and the cultural organizations associated with them help us remain connected with our faith, they help the second generation keep their faith alive too. We hold religious classes, and teach our children Indian languages -- in this temple, we teach Gujarati."

There are more than 50,000 Hindus living around one hour's driving distance from the Berlin borough temple, and though only a fraction visit this temple, it has become too small to cater to their needs. "Our community has been steadily growing and the cultural center is very vital to us because we cannot hold events and religious classes for more than a few dozens," Dixit says.

While the town authorities would not comment on the zoning issue citing the law suit, an official of New Jersey Planning Officials, a non-profit group that advises municipal and county zoning boards, told reporters that New Jersey is considered a "tough state" because "the residents have a lot more to say."

"When the neighbors have a reaction, the governing body has a reaction," Joe Doyle, executive director of the Planning Officials said.

"I feel it is a case of people being afraid of something unknown, different and strange to them," says Suren Gambhir, a professor in the South Asian studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. "But such opposition is found throughout American history -- every new group of immigrants including Italians, Irish and Jews, have found some opposition or the other."

It was either the fear of the unknown or outright hatred for foreign religions that drove hundreds of families in New Jersey's Newtown a decade ago to campaign against a $ 100 million project to build a lavish Swaminarayan temple, retreat center, school and cultural center. Letters comparing the Hindus with cults such as the one that led to the mass suicide of dozens in Jonestown began circulating. Yoga was rumored to be disguised devil worship. Video tapes ranting against Hinduism, Mahatma Gandhi and yoga began to surface in many homes. The name of Shree Rajneesh's commune was invoked -- and leaflets warned of free sex associated with Rajneesh.

Upset over the overwhelming opposition, the Swaminarayanis gave up the project. But quickly they hired an American public relations firm to run a campaign asserting that the Swaminarayanis were a peaceful and legitimate religious group with an open agenda.

Most of the opposition to temple and mosque projects have risen when they were to be situated in the middle of a city or a town.

The Berlin Borough issue is one of the many controversies that have challenged the building of Hindu temples and mosques across America. Many of the objections have been over zoning laws, with the residents protesting the proposed temple or a mosque would disturb the peaceful neighborhoods.

"Some of the objections could spring from genuine concerns but some are motivated by the dislike or fear of something different," says Alagappa Alagappan, one of the trustees of the Hindu temple in New York. "Some opposition comes from purely racist minds."

And yet, in most cases the officials of the proposed temples have succeeded in convincing the people in the neighborhood that except for a few days in a year such as during the Navratri celebrations, the visitors to the temples would not cause any disruption of life

There are nearly 100 temples across the United States catering to every sect and denomination. Over $ 100 million has been spent on them, according to conservative estimates.

"The fact that others have faced the opposition and overcome the problem gives us encouragement," says Dixit. "But frankly, did we have to go to the court?"

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