ACLU and Orange County Buddhists Challenge Discriminatory City Ordinance

August 9, 2006 12:00 am

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ORANGE, CA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today sued the city of Garden Grove for using an unconstitutional city code to prevent local Buddhists from expanding their congregation.

The lawsuit on behalf of Quan Am Temple, which is also known as the Vietnamese Buddhism Study Temple, was filed in federal district court in Santa Ana.

“Under the Garden Grove city code, city officials have full discretion to decide what religious institutions are allowed to practice in the city and where they are allowed to practice,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California in Orange County. “We are challenging this unconstitutional code so that Quan Am Temple and other religious institutions in the future are legally allowed to practice their religion.”

The current Garden Grove statute requires religious institutions to be housed in residential zones or seek a zone change from the city and obtain a conditional use permit prior to practicing their religion in the city. The city used this ordinance to prevent the Quan Am Temple from moving to its newly purchased building, even though the city has routinely allowed non-profit organizations to be housed in commercial areas, and has granted zone changes to other religious groups.

The ACLU is asking the court to block the city from enforcing the ordinance because it violates the U.S. and California Constitutions as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal statute that protects religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts.

“It is very difficult for us to file this complaint, but we feel we have been left with no choice,” said Thich Dao Quang, the abbot of the Quan Am Temple. “We have done everything possible to allay the concerns of the city. We reduced the size of the temple, we added extra parking, we offered to pay property taxes, we proposed a shuttle service for congregants on busy holidays and we even paid for a traffic study of the site that said traffic would be reduced, but still the temple has been denied. We now have nowhere to practice our religion.”

Quan Am Temple opened in Garden Grove in 1999, but by 2003 the congregation had outgrown its one-story building. To better accommodate its congregation of 150 to 300 area residents and 14 monks and nuns, in 2004 temple leaders purchased a medical building on 1.8 acres using a $1.95 million loan from a congregant. The building had been on the market for three years in an area zoned for “office-professional” use. According to the complaint, the temple received assurances from city council members that the city would support converting the building to place of worship. However, despite a recommendation from city staff, the planning commission and the city council denied the temple’s requests for permits to begin converting the site.

“The city says it’s worried about losing its tax base, but the temple has offered to pay property taxes even though religious institutions are tax-exempt and the building has sat nearly empty for about three years,” Escobosa Helzer said. “The temple is hanging on by a string. Its congregation is unable to practice its religion and the temple is losing money and barely able to survive. They cannot even afford to keep all the lights on as they try to hang on to the building while this ordeal continues.”

Today’s complaint is online at:

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