Hawaii high court orders temple to follow zoning rules

Monday, May 18, 1998

To the consternation of members of a Buddhist sect in Honolulu, the state’s high court has ordered the Korean Buddhist Dae Won Sa Temple to be reconstructed because it violates city zoning laws.

Despite members’ arguments that the “balance and harmony” of the buildings forming the temple compound were essential to the way they practiced their faith, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in April that the zoning ordinance did not substantially burden the members’ First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.

The Buddhists’ woes started in the late 1980s when temple officials obtained a building permit to expand the compound in a residential area in Palolo Valley. Officials built a hall to house a museum to further understanding of the Korean Buddhist religion.

After the hall was complete, however, a city inspector cited temple officials with a zoning violation saying the hall’s roof was several feet higher than the law permitted. Temple officials sued the city alleging the zoning law violated their rights to the free exercise of religion and asking for an exemption from the law.

Abbot Dae Won Ki, the spiritual leader of the temple, said the design of the hall and the surrounding buildings have “a special purpose and meaning and the compound is organized in a very special way, each of the elements having a harmonious relationship with the other.”

Because of the significance of the buildings’ structure to their religious practices, temple officials argued that the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause should shield them from complying with the city law.

The Hawaii Supreme Court, however, ruled that temple officials did not show that the zoning ordinance substantially burdened their free exercise of religion.

Despite claims by the temple’s members that lowering the hall’s roof would be tantamount to an act of religious desecration, the high court said the temple’s problems were “self-inflicted.”

Justice Steven H. Levinson, writing for the majority, said that officials did not have to build the temple in the Palolo Valley residential district. The temple could have been lawfully built in a district zoned for apartments or businesses, Levinson said.

Abbot Ki argued, however, that he had no choice but to choose the Palolo Valley area, because the land “gave the feeling that it was a holy place.”

Levinson concluded that temple officials “cannot force the City to zone according to its religious conclusion that a particular plot of land is ‘holy ground.’”

The court also concluded that the expense of removing the hall’s roof and replacing it with one acceptable under the zoning ordinances did not amount to a substantial burden on the temple’s practice of religion.

“In any event, the considerable expense (both financial and spiritual) of removing the Hall’s completed roof could easily have been avoided,” by seeking an exemption before the construction commenced, the court ruled.