February 19, 2012
Supervisors should not cave to religious freedom arguments in the debate about the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary
Call me anti-religious. But Sufism Reoriented's desire to build a big white complex in Walnut Creek's residential Saranap community shouldn't get any more consideration than any secular property owner whose grandiose construction ambitions ignite neighborhood concerns.
The three-year-old controversy is now in the hands of Contra County Board of Supervisors. They will hold a special all-day hearing at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts Tuesday. Hundreds are expected to speak at the meeting, at which the supervisors will decide on an appeal by Saranap neighbors who disagree with the county Planning Commission's November decision to allow the 66,000-square-foot sanctuary to rise on 3.12 acres on Boulevard Way.
All along, the 350-member organization has said that the white, multi-domed design of their proposed sanctuary embodies "our most sacred beliefs and supports our worship." The
Contra Costa County Interfaith Council supports the Sufi plan, with the Rev. Brian Stein-Webber, director of the council, telling the Contra Costa Times that religions, even those outside the mainstream, as Sufism Reoriented is, should have a right to build within their community. Opposition to design elements of the project are the result of unintended religious bias, one Sufism member, Pascal Kaplan, said during testimony before the Planning Commission.
Sure, religious organizations should be able to build in their communities, but they shouldn't receive special consideration to build what they want just because they are a religious organization.
In a post in December, I quoted constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton, an expert on church-state relations, on the problems that arise when church organizations gain special privileges in land use and other disputes. A federal law, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, shifts the balance of power in residential neighborhoods to religious landowners. "The residential quality of a neighborhood takes a back seat to the interests of the church group," she wrote in her book God versus the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. "The untoward result is that homeowners become second-class citizens to their religious neighbors."
Hamilton supports religious freedom, but wants reasonable limits for the good of everyone. "Religion's force can be just another iteration of the drive to power," she writes, saying that Americans should get over an unrealistic and hazardous belief "that religion is always for the good."
She says that "some religious conduct deserves freedom and some requires limitation."
It's possible that religious issues will come up in Tuesday's meeting. religious grounds.
County planning staff have recommended that the supervisors deny the appeal and allow the project to go forward. Most of their reasons for approval hinge on their opinion that Sufism Reoriented has adequately addressed parking, traffic and other environmental impacts. Essentially, staff says the single-family residential high-density zoning in that area allows for churches and religious institutions. The proposed sanctuary meets all the necessary development standards, which are the same for religious buildings as they for residential structures.
But staff also cites Sufism religious practices as a reason for approving its size and design. Neighbors object to the 66,000 square feet -- similar in scale to downtown Walnut Creek's new library or Neiman Marcus department store. They also object to the 13 white domes, saying they are inconsistent with the character of the rest of the neighborhood.
Staff acknowledges that "the style is unique" but they say it reflects "the central tenants of the applicant's religious beliefs." The organization has also adequately explained its spiritual needs for such a large building, staff say. "The members of Sufism worship and celebrate the founder through the arts, music, drama and dance and therefore, the display, storage and shipping of art, scoring room, prayer hall etc. are necessary."
While Sufism Reoriented says they need this particular design for their religious practices, their desire should not trump neighbors' desire to stop a massive construction project from going in near their homes. As I said, call me anti-religious. Or just say that I agree with Hamilton in the very American ideal of separation of church and state.
In a lot of ways, the Sufism plan is the equivalent of the big ugly house your grandiose neighbor wants to build -- a situation that doesn't necessarily bode well for opponents of the sanctuary project.
I'm sure the homeowners who built that big ugly house on the Alamo hill overlooking Interstate 680 were as dedicated to their views of design and aesthetics as Sufism members are to theirs.
Actually, the county has a tendency to support big ugly houses in unincorporated areas, like that Alamo house or the ones dominating the hill overlooking the Parkmead neighborhood. So, if those projects can go through, I can easily see the Sufism sanctuary project ultimately getting the green light.