On its website, Sufism Reoriented says that the white, multi-domed design of their proposed 66,000- square-foot sanctuary embodies "our most sacred beliefs and supports our worship."
"Throughout the world, people design their churches to reflect the principles of their faith and locate their places of worship near where they live," says the page titled "A Sacred Design." "This is especially so in America, with its founding principle of religious freedom and its history of ever-increasing religious pluralism."
Religious freedom. Which gets us into the First Amendment.
Those are pretty heavy-duty concepts that have hovered around the ongoing debate over the 350-member group's proposal to build its new sanctuary in the unincorporated Saranap neighborhood near downtown Walnut Creek. The debate has divided a once tranquil neighborhood and aroused private charges of aggressive proselytizing from one side and religious intolerance and rampant NIMBYism from the other.
The third of three public hearings in as many weeks takes place tonight before the county Planning Commission. The commission will make the final decision on whether Sufism Reoriented can build its new church on three acres off Boulevard Way. Planning staff have recommended that the commission approve the plan, saying the new sanctuary conforms to the guidelines set out in the county General Plan and won't create a neighborhood nuisance.
In the two previous hearings, people lined the Martinez chamber's aisles and spilled into the hallway, according to the Contra Costa Times. Public testimony went on for hours.
Neighbors opposing the sanctuary say it's too big for its location in a residential neighborhood, with proportions siimilar to the new downtown Neiman Marcus or the Walnut Creek Library.Then there are the 12 white domes surrounding a central rotunda. Sufism Reoriented compares them to the domes that sit atop national monuments or other faiths' houses of worship. Neighbors have compared them to something out of a sci-fi movie, and say they don't fit in with the character of the older neighborhood with its mid-century ranch houses and remodeled Craftsman bungalows. Neighbors worry about increased parking and traffic and the removal of trees to make way for construction. They also are concerned that construction and excavation to house two-thirds of the facility underground will cause flooding to nearby homes.
Sufism members and other supporters say the facility won't become a neighborhood eyesore. Far from it. It will be an architectural asset to the community. Surrounding greenery will veil the above-ground portions of the sanctuary from passersby. They also say the new church incorporates many environmentally friendly elements and won't increase traffic in the neighborhood because their membership levels are stable.
And, while the congregation has only several hundred members, many of those live in Saranap. The congregation also has the support of thousands more non-members, including those whose kids attend or have attended the Meher School, a private school in Saranap run by the organization. While not Sufism members, many who attend the Meher School have had positive experiences with Sufis and view them as good, contributing members of the community.
So far, Sufism Reoriented has not come on strong about the religious freedom aspect of its church plans -- except for what the organization states in its published materials and website. And the county planning staff has not mentioned it as a reason for approving the project.
But along these lines, Sufism Reoriented would have a very powerful weapon it could deploy if the county Planning Commission wasn't amenable to their proposal.
It is a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars government entities from imposing land use regulations that create a "substantial burden" on a group's right to religious assembly. Over the years and in communities around the country, there have been many legal battles over RLUIPA. Like the Sufism sanctuary debate, these conflicts arise from a church's desire to build a big new facility or expand it in ways that neighbors don't like.
Legal scholars who oppose RLUIPA say it violates the separation of church and state in that it it gives religious landowners special rights to challenge land use laws that their secular neighbors don't have. Municipal organizations often don't want to deal with costly RLUIPA challenges, and neighbors opposing a church's plans don't have the resources for a legal fight, either.
As I've stated in previous posts on this issue, I don't live in Saranap but in the neighborhood next to it. I have friends who are Saranap residents.
I support Sufism's desire to built a new center. But all along, I've scratched my head over the group's need for such a large facility for such a small congregation.
I've also been baffled as to why Sufism Reoriented would come up with this design in the first place. The dome idea is a lovely one, if the group were building its new facility in, say, the National Mall.
in previous materials that Thomas Jefferson's harmonic design principles have been a major influence. If that's the case, I wonder why the group apparently never considered following the route taken by the architects who built the beautiful new visitors center at Jefferson's Virginia estate, Monticello. I had the privilege to visit Monticello a few years ago and to walk through the exhibits of the new visitors center.
Yes, I know, that ship has sailed.
For Sufism members, the dome structure creates a tranquil and uplifting interior space, which awakens the heart for "prayer, meditation, and communion with God," as the organization explains on its website. For this reason, "domes are found in houses of worship everywhere": in Christendom, in Buddhist temples, in synagogues and in mosques. As for the color white, it "symbolizes purity, unity, and inclusiveness because all the colors of the rainbow blend together to produce white light."
According to the faith they profess, the Sufis have had strong reasons to want the domes and to want the white. But do the tenets of their faith matter more than their neighbors' desire to control matters that they say affect their ability to enjoy their own homes and properties?
Whatever the outcome of the county planning process, the hard feelings between the two sides in the neighborhood are likely to contine.