County denies Buddhists’ request to build monastery in California town

Monday, July 13, 1998

County lawmakers and residents of Chino, Calif., have blocked efforts of an American Buddhist sect from building a large monastery and worship center in a small rural neighborhood.

The incident is one of a growing number nationwide that pits religious freedom against zoning regulations.

The Myanmar Buddhist Society of America has been seeking a home for a monastery in the area for more than a year. In early January, Chino city officials urged San Bernardino county officials to deny the Burmese sect's request and issued a letter stating they would not provide a sewer connection for the monastery. Chino officials maintain that the rural community could not handle traffic problems that supposedly would result if the proposed 6,000-square-foot worship hall and adjoining parking lot were built.

In April, however, the San Bernardino County Planning Commission conducted public hearings on the proposal and concluded that Chino's concerns about traffic problems and other land-issues were overblown. The commission ruled that Chino's roads were more than adequate to handle the traffic, and that the absence of weekly services would make the monastery less of a traffic magnet than other churches. The commission recommended approval of the project to the county board of supervisors.

After the planning commission's recommendation, Chino residents formed a group called “Save Our Unique Rural Country Environment” and asked the board of supervisors to overturn the recommendation and deny a permit to build the monastery. The board of supervisors voted unanimously last week to do so.

“This is not an area where this would be appropriate,” said board member Larry Walker. “As difficult as this is, we have to look at this proposal and the impact on the community.”

Guy White, leader of the citizen group, said Chino residents had nothing against Buddhism, but were merely concerned that the monastery would undermine the rural sensibilities of the neighborhood and reduce property values. White also told the planning commission that traffic would increase in the neighborhood surrounding the monastery where normally people slow down so chickens can cross the road.

“I wouldn't care if they were Methodists, Lutherans or Catholics,” White said. “This kind of thing does not belong in the middle of a block like this. They shouldn't be allowed to come in and disrupt a whole community.”

Havanpola Ratanasara, executive president of the American Buddhist Congress, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group for Buddhist communities, said that the board of supervisors was influenced by citizens' prejudice against different religions.

“The Burmese Buddhist sect was denied their temple because a small group of people were prejudiced,” Ratanasara said.

The Myanmar sect, represented by a Los Angeles attorney, has already filed a state lawsuit against Chino alleging the city's denial of sewer connections for the monastery violates the groups First Amendment speech and religion rights. The sect's attorney told The Press-Enterprise, a San Bernardino newspaper, that he would add the county to the lawsuit.

“It's obvious some of the opposition is driven by people who don't want more Asians in their neighborhood,” said the attorney, Ronald St. John. The state court is scheduled to hear arguments in the suit next month.

Friction between religious practices and the right of government to create zoning laws are increasingly a concern among religious leaders and attorneys. The recently introduced Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998 addresses land-use issues by stating that government shall not impose any land regulation that “substantially burdens religious exercise,” unless the government can show the land-use law meets the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test.